SEOUL, South Korea: When I visit the poor in the Manila slums and smell the putrid, revolting stink of the black slime of the waterways that carry the excrement of a million families through the sprawling metropolis of Metro Manila and look upon the towering condominiums of the rich and the wealthy, I am smelling not the dirt of the poor but the corrupt rottenness of the system where the millions of poor survive in conditions not fit of pigs.
South Korea was much the same in the 1960’s but despite its own brand of monopolies, family dynasties, its share of dictators, it has risen from such abject inequality and squalor to a first world, modern, prosperous economy and better living conditions. It’s not without social problems but is far ahead of the Philippines, which was a more advanced economy in the 1960’s. It is then no wonder that thousands of Filipinos flock here to find better paying jobs and good working conditions.
The horrific death toll of more than 72 workers in the fire that swept through the slippers factory in Valenzuela City last week is just evidence of the dangerous and exploitative working conditions of the poor. They endure these dangerous, unhealthy conditions to make a slim living. The disaster is just one more example of government ineptitude and incompetence in regulating industry for safety and fire prevention and unable to provide adequate fast response.
This disaster is similar to the fire in Bangladesh two years ago where hundreds of workers died in a fire in locked-down factory making branded clothes for rich fashion-seeking egotists. It took the images of charred, burnt bodies to get the government and the world’s rich to focus on the bad working conditions of the millions who slave away providing them with clothes they don’t even need.
What the world needs is true economic trade justice: fair wages, benefits and safe, dignified working conditions. Fair Trade is the movement that tries to teach by example what is right and just for the workers of the world. It calls for people to treat each other with mutual respect.
Capitalism has all but crushed trade unionism. Using fake company-controlled unions, intimidation and threats, underpaid contract labor and outsourcing and bribery, few exploited work forces can unite to demand fair wages and good safe working conditions as their basic human right.
World Fair Trade Day was recently celebrated around the world as a fledgling movement standing up for the rights and dignity of producers and workers. Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon was a pioneer of the social justice and fair trade movement in South Korea and he rose from its ranks to his present prominent political position. He invited me to join him to visit the many display booths along the street near city hall where Fair Trade products were on display during the Fair Trade festival.
It was encouraging to see the hundreds of enthusiastic, young people in the booths supporting worker’s rights and selling the products of Fair Trade producer groups in many countries. They traded coffee, tea, bananas, chocolate, mangoes, clothes and many more products made in dignity. These were products to be used without shame and made in fairness. Unlike the sweatshops and death traps of unfair liberal capitalist production factories, Fair Trade producers follow rules that guarantee fairness in wages and good working conditions.
Fair Trade is economic justice and a sharing of profits, democratic process and participation in management and paying just prices for the goods bought. The Fair Trade criteria are a declaration of justice and respect that bans child labor, exploitative practices and promotes fairness, gender equality, and human rights.
In Preda Fair Trade based in Olongapo City, Philippines, Fair Trade has become more than supporting small farmers and indigenous people to get best fair prices and conditions but it takes a strong stand and campaigns against the evil trade in human beings. Through the Preda Foundation, it works to end sex slavery, save trafficked women and children and end sex tourism and child labor.
South Korea came under severe criticism for human trafficking some years ago and did much to elevate itself from the lowest ranking to the highest level on the US State Department’s index of non-compliance with international standards. But does it deserve to have that improved status? Defenders of women’s and children’s rights are questioning if the illegal trafficking has just been given a make-over name change and made “legal.”
Dedicated researchers have found grave abuse of women and minors that amounts to sexual exploitation and human trafficking. The Korean government makes it possible by means of a Korean Visa known as E-6 which allows young women and many minors to enter Korea as “Arts and Entertainers Workers.”
The researchers, among other information, have found the following:
“In 2013, the number of the foreigners who stayed in Korea with E-6 visa was 4,940, and 77.5% were (from the) Philippines. Moreover, 12.3% were teenagers when they entered Korea. Sadly, since the early 2000s it has been reported that a lot of females with E-6 visa have been exposed to sexual exploitation and other types of human rights violations in Korea such as verbal violence and physical violence including unlawful confinement.”
For a country where there is a semi-permanent protest against the World War II Japanese sexual exploitation of Korean “comfort women,” this E-6 visa is making possible a supply of modern “comfort women” for the Korean sex trade. This has to be stopped. It is just another form of aiding and abetting the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable Filipino women and minors.