By Naomi Klein
06 March, 2004
Friedman hasn't been this worked up about free trade since the anti-World
Trade Organization protests in Seattle. Back then, he told New York
Times readers that the work environment in a Sri Lankan Victoria's Secret
factory was so terrific "that, in terms of conditions, I would
let my own daughters work" there.
He never did update
readers on how the girls enjoyed their stint stitching undergarments,
but Friedman has since moved on--now to the joys of call-center work
in Bangalore. These jobs, he wrote on February 29, are giving young
people "self-confidence, dignity and optimism"--and that's
not just good for Indians, but for Americans as well. Why? Because happy
workers paid to help US tourists locate the luggage they've lost on
Delta flights are less inclined to strap on dynamite and blow up those
explains the connection: "Listening to these Indian young people,
I had a déjà vu. Five months ago, I was in Ramallah, on
the West Bank, talking to three young Palestinian men, also in their
20's.... They talked of having no hope, no jobs and no dignity, and
they each nodded when one of them said they were all 'suicide bombers
in waiting.'" From this he concludes that outsourcing fights terrorism:
By moving "low-wage, low-prestige" jobs to "places like
India or Pakistan...we make not only a more prosperous world, but a
safer world for our own 20-year-olds."
Where to begin with
such an argument? India has not been linked to a major international
terrorist incident since the Air India bombing in 1985 (the suspected
bombers were mostly Indian-born Canadian citizens). Neither is the 81
percent Hindu country an Al Qaeda hotbed; in fact, India has been named
by the terrorist network as "an enemy of Islam." But never
mind the details. In Friedmanworld, call centers are the front lines
of World War III: The Fight for Modernity, bravely keeping brown-skinned
young people out of the clutches of Hamas and Al Qaeda.
But are these jobs--many
of which demand that workers disguise their nationality, adopt fake
Midwestern accents and work all night--actually the self-esteem boosters
Friedman claims? Not for Lubna Baloch, a Pakistani woman subcontracted
to transcribe medical files dictated by doctors at the University of
California San Francisco Medical Center. The hospital pays transcribers
in the United States 18 cents a line, but Baloch was paid only one-sixth
that. Even so, her US employer--a contractor's subcontractor's subcontractor--couldn't
manage to make payroll, and Baloch claimed she was owed hundreds of
dollars in back wages.
In October, frustrated
that her boss wouldn't respond to her e-mails, Baloch contacted UCSF
Medical Center and threatened to "expose all the voice files and
patient records...on the Internet." She later retracted the threat,
explaining, "I feel violated, helpless...the most unluckiest person
in this world." So much for "self-confidence, dignity and
optimism"--it seems that not all outsourced tech jobs are insurance
against acts of desperation.
Friedman is right
to acknowledge, finally, that there is a clear connection between fighting
poverty and fighting terrorism (a step up from his usual practice of
blaming suicide bombing on "collective madness"). He is wrong,
of course, to argue that free-trade policies will alleviate that poverty:
In fact, they are a highly efficient engine of dispossession, pushing
small farmers off their land and laying off public-sector workers, making
the need all the more desperate for those Victoria's Secret and Delta
call center jobs.
But even if Friedman
genuinely believes that low-wage export jobs are the key to economic
development, holding them up as the cure for hopelessness in Ramallah
verges on obscene. Every credible study on the economy in the occupied
territories has concluded that the single greatest cause of Palestinian
unemployment--now at over 50 percent--is the occupation itself. Israel's
brutal system of sealing off Palestinian towns and villages--through
checkpoints, roadblocks, curfews, fences and now the vile "security"
wall--has "all but destroyed the Palestinian economy," states
a September 2003 Amnesty International Report. "Closures and curfews
have prevented Palestinians from reaching their places of work.... Factories
and farms have been driven out of business."
In other words,
economic development will not come to Palestine via call centers but
through liberation. Friedman's argument is equally absurd when applied
to the country where terrorism is rising most rapidly: Iraq. As in Palestine,
Iraq is facing an unemployment crisis, one fueled by occupation. And
no wonder: Paul Bremer's first move as chief US envoy was to lay off
400,000 soldiers and other state workers. His second was to fling open
Iraq's borders to cheap imports, predictably putting hundreds of local
companies out of business.
looking to land a job rebuilding their shattered country were mostly
out of luck: The reconstruction of Iraq is a vast job-creation program
for Americans, with Halliburton et al. importing US workers not only
as engineers but also as cooks, truck drivers and hairdressers. Second-tier
jobs go to migrants from Asia, and Iraqis pick up the trash. It seems
worth noting that John Kerry and John Edwards, while eager to condemn
the loss of American jobs to "offshoring," have had nothing
to say about this massive outsourcing of desperately needed Iraqi jobs
by US corporations.
Yet these policies,
maybe more than any others, have fueled the violence that now threatens
to push Iraq into civil war. The men Bremer laid off are "the water
tap that keeps the insurgency going. It's alternative employment,"
Iraqi entrepreneur Hussain Kubba told Asia Times. It's a view supported
by Hassam Kadhim, a 27-year-old resident of Sadr City, who told the
New York Times he is so desperate for work that "if someone comes
with $50 and asks me to toss a grenade at the Americans, I'll do it
idea of fighting terrorism with outsourced American jobs seems overly
complicated. A better plan would be to end the occupation and stop sending
American workers to steal Iraqi jobs.
Naomi Klein is the
author of 'No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies' (Picador) and,
most recently, 'Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines
of the Globalization Debate' (Picador).
2004 The Nation