Globalization: Bringing People Together or Widening the Gap? by Katie Knable

Former president Jimmy Carter once said, “Globalization, as defined by rich people like us, is a very nice thing . . . you are talking about the Internet, you are talking about cell phones, you are talking about computers. This doesn’t affect two-thirds of the people of the world” (Globalization). Even as President Carter attempted to point out that the wealthy and privileged are not in the majority, he probably still underestimated the percentage of “poor” in the world today. In the eyes of the capitalist businessman, globalization is all about making connections, breaking down boundaries, and promoting global understanding. For laborers in third world nations, however, these lofty goals seem as far away as the countries that encourage them. The average factory worker’s standard of living has not improved over the past few decades as a direct result of globalization.

In the past decade, Nike has undergone heavy criticism concerning the controversy around their outsourced production factories in struggling nations. Opponents argue that Nike and other similar big businesses have failed to meet some of the commonly accepted human rights criteria in terms of employee treatment in their foreign production facilities. Many human rights activists urge to increase wages and improve working conditions in the factories of the “third world.” In the most publicized example, one customer requested a personalized pair of tennis shoes with the word “sweatshop” written on the heel. Nike refused to make the custom shoes and the situation turned into a full-blown court case that scarred the image of Nike to this day. Even after wage regulations were set by the shoe company, Nike workers in China earn an average of $1.75 a day. Equivalent employees in Vietnam make the lowest with a meager $1.60 a day on average. The average Indonesian worker appears lucky in comparison, taking home a daily average of $2.46 (Nike). How has the capitalist dream of globalization benefitted the laborers of these countries: Instead of working on farms or starting personal small businesses, lower class citizens in third world nations are being put to work in factories. They are forced to work overtime and in horrific conditions to produce a good that they themselves could not afford. One 16-year-old girl working for Nike in Bangladesh describes, “If you made any mistakes or fell behind on your goal, they beat you….They slapped you and lashed you hard on the face with the pants” (Hallare). Her typical working day consisted of sitting on a small wooden stool for 16 hours, inhaling the dirty air, and being engulfed in the heat of the overcrowded factory. American companies outsource many of their production services to third world nations based on cost. In the United States, no worker or union could ever stand for earning less than minimum wage. Many foreign nations, however, have no unions or government regulations pertaining to labor rights. Should big businesses be permitted to profit wildly from the suffering and poverty of their producers? In the eyes of a factory worker, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Globalization has changed the original family structure in the targeted third world nations. Children who were once encouraged to pursue education or help their parents around the home are now required to work in a factory all day just to make ends meet. One out of every six children in the world is currently involved in some form of child labor (Facts). Although this statistic includes some young adult part-time jobs, the vast majority of children work in agriculture and factories in lesser-developed nations. India currently has the largest number of child laborers (Mehmet 51). These children are not working in the factories in order to gain work experience or to get out of school. They are working because the needs and desires of wealthy nations demand a greater and cheaper work force. Families in such nations find it next to impossible to survive without buying into the factory life. Americans have shown that they are willing to pay over $100 for a Nike pair of shoes that cost less than $5 to make (Nike). The profit goes to Nike or other businesses in general. The laborers who spend up to eighteen hours a day making these shoes see little or none of the profits.

The effects that globalization has on third world factory workers are not only financially negative for the people of the nation; they are also dangerous and unhealthy. As competition among factories increases, the focus on health and safety conditions decrease. In the midst of extreme wealth by some, families still beg, children still work, and parents still starve as they attempt to climb out of the bottomless pit of poverty that the effects of globalization has pushed them into. Efficiency remains the primary focus of outsourced companies. In a stakeholder analysis, companies tend to focus their efforts and marketing on consumers over suppliers and employees because consumers bring in the profit. Factory workers are viewed and treated as machines, dispensable and uneducated. While such jobs are easily replaced, it is the fault of the big businesses that the people in their factories are uneducated. If laborers earned more, fewer children would have to work. As a result, more youth would go on to complete higher education and rise to become specialists with more “respectable” jobs. Factory workers are not as respected for their hard work and dedication because capitalists view success in terms of money. The conditions and lifestyles of third world nations are crying out for outsiders to notice them. Businesses hold the stakes to change the situations; all they have to do is act upon them.

Just as in Capitalist societies, a globalized world has economic winners and losers. “Globalization increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots of the world” (Flanagan 4). Wealthy nations like the United States begin the standard of living competition with a significant head start in front of countries like Indonesia and Vietnam. Phillip Knight, the CEO of Nike, was at one point the sixth richest man in America (Nike). Although Knight is undoubtedly an educated and successful businessman, he made his fortune in large part from the unsuspecting laborers in Vietnam who find themselves lucky to have a healthy meal to eat when they return home after an abnormally long day at work. The people of these struggling countries have been left in the dust to perform the dirty work and pick up the messes left by those at the top of the economic ladder. Even in a literal sense, countries like Vietnam are now polluting the world more than ever to produce goods that will be shipped to America. The New York Times recently published an article claiming, “The air in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City contains dangerous levels of benzene and sulfur dioxide” (Fuller). A city that was once full of bicycles and walkers is now flooded with low-efficiency motorcycles and cloudy skies because they are unable to afford pollution prevention equipment and services. Governments and factories often purchase the cheapest materials available, which are also usually the least environmentally friendly products on the market.

Critics often argue that the mean, or average, annual pay of laborers around the world has increased in the past few decades. A survey conducted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization discovered that the annual salary has almost doubled from 1980 to 1995 (Flanagan 24). Life expectancy and literacy have both increased worldwide while the average number of weekly working hours has decreased. These statistics lead people to question if developing countries are better off with western influence and colonization or not. Production facilities offer various jobs, provide families with a source of income, and educate citizens about business in different parts of the world. Although these statistics and benefits are correct, they fail to highlight some of the confounding variables. While the average annual pay has increased dramatically, so has the maximum annual pay. Meanwhile, the minimum has decreased somewhat over the surveyed fifteen years (24). Factoring in inflation and the increased cost of living, the lowest-paid laborers today are making far less than they did in 1980.

All throughout history different cultures have tried to impose their values and ways of life on others. From the practices seen by Rome to colonization, people naturally want to share their world with others. As seen by various revolutions, however, most people do not appreciate it when their former lifestyles are stripped from them. Governments that enter into other nations in hopes of using it to their own benefit see themselves as superior. This ethnocentric mindset raises the wealthy up on a pedestal and pushes the poor underneath to hold it up. Globalization actually separates the wealthy and the poor in a never-ending cycle. Opportunity is the bridge that can connect the “haves” and the “have-nots.” By forcing third world nations into the factories to produce goods for the wealthy, big businesses are taking these opportunities away. Other companies see the low wages that employees are settling for and realize that they can get away with it. Wages decrease for many job positions, and the citizens are left with very few roads to take, most of them leading to poverty. Laborers in developing countries become desperate enough to take whatever work is available to support themselves and their families. Even with unimaginable working conditions and meager salaries, factory workers are forced to settle for anything they can earn. While the fatal accident rates in production factories have decreased in the past few decades, labor conditions are still subpar and degrading (Flanagan 24). Large corporations realize this and take advantage of such workers by cutting corners when it comes to wages, benefits, overtime, and facilities.

In developing nations, management goes to extremes to ensure that there is absolutely no time theft occurring in their factories. To take some of the blame off of Nike, Puma has also been attacked for their employee treatment in China. A recent report showcased that at least 80 employees were forced to share one bathroom in the Puma factory and that they were only permitted to visit it a regulated number of times in their 12 hour work day (Kells). An hour-long lunch break is unheard of and overtime is common practice. Some companies will go as far as to fire employees that take a sick day or two. Why do these workers agree to live in such conditions? They comply because it is the best option they have to survive and provide for their families. Some companies feel as though they must employ cheap labor to simply keep up with competitors. If Adidas were to produce all of their goods in the United States under strict labor laws and contracts, they would go out of business. They would either have to raise prices so high to make up for employee salaries or they would keep prices at Nike standards and make no profit because shoes are so much more expensive to produce in wealthy nations. If all businesses are required to follow a reasonable minimum wage and benefits package for their outsourced production facilities, both laborers and big businesses could benefit. The workers would obviously improve their meager standard of living by working fewer hours and making a reasonable income. Meanwhile, businesses would be viewed by consumers as compassionate and globally aware.

Although China has acknowledged these deplorable conditions, written law alone cannot reverse it. Just as President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not eliminate racism instantly or entirely, laws cannot singlehandedly eradicate the abuses experienced by factory workers in developing nations. Only a uniform change in business ethics and values can improve the lives of the factory workers and families in developing nations like Vietnam and Indonesia. Until this day comes, the gap between the wealthy of the world and the poor of the world will continue to grow larger.

Works Cited

“Facts on Child Labor.” International Labor Organization (2004): n. pag. Web. 20 Oct 2009.

Flanagan, Robert. Globalization and Labor Conditions. New York: Oxford U P, 2006. Print.

Fuller, Thomas. “Air Pollution Fast Becoming an Issue in Booming Vietnam” New York Times 6 June 2007. Print.

“Globalization Quotes.” Quotations. 2009. Web. 20 Oct2009. <>.

Hallare, Joanne. “Sweatshop Workers Tell Story.” Heights (2004): n. pag. Web. 20 Nov 2009.

Kells, Claire. “Two Reports Highlight Trends in Chinese Labor Conditions.” China Digital Times. 24 June 2008. Berkeley China Internet Project. Web. 21 Oct 2009.

Mehmet, Ozay, Errol Mendes, and Robert Sinding. Towards a Fair Global Labour Market. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

“Nike Shoe Production in the Third World—the Facts.” Third World Traveler. Boycotts, Web. 20 Oct 2009. <>.