Picketers surround a chainstore clothing outlet and hand out leaflets about labor conditions on the Pacific island of Saipan. A mainline church sponsors a talk on how the world’s largest sneaker companies use Indonesian sweatshop labor. Students at the local college take over a campus building, demanding that the school quit licensing its logo to appear on goods made in sweatshops.
The economic development deal usually offered to low-income communities is very much like a bad trade deal: it offers minimal jobs and ignores environmental sustainability. The jobs created tend to be the dirtiest and most dangerous and—especially in the case of retail—jobs without living wages. The result is unchecked degradation that pits unions, environmentalists, and communities against each other. The only winners are the businesses that profit from the divide.
In 1998, 48-year-old Parvathi Ammal came to Cupertino, California from Madurai, India, to visit her distant but well-to-do relatives on their invitation. During her originally planned three-month stay, she helped the Gopalan family with household chores, including taking care of their two children and occasional cooking. At the end of her stay, the family invited her to continue living with them as a domestic help for a monthly payment of $300, convincing her that working informally and overstaying her visitor visa, were not crimes.
“Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not,” Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, wrote in a recent piece in the Chicago Sun-Times. “At the same time, the safety net of services and support that once protected the poor lies in tatters. Today, working parents in ill-paid jobs often work themselves right out of eligibility for desperately needed assistance.”