Sunday, June 24, 2007

Party Politics and International Relations

A couple of weeks ago, Simon, Noam and I decided to have a party. No particular reason, just felt like the right thing to do. Unlike at our previous party, there was no piano-playing at 2:00am -- which would have pleased the neighbours -- but a generally good time was had by all.

Later we worked out that there were representatives from at least twelve other countries besides New Zealand at the party: China, England, India, Iran, Israel, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Peru, Sweden, and Uruguay. And then there was the unfortunate absence (for various reasons) of good friends or recent or future visitors from Australia, Colombia, Ireland, Russia, and the United States.

The cosmopolitan nature of the gathering was hardly a surprise, given that we live in Wellington and work in the academic and government sectors. But it made me think of an interesting twist on the 'pointy-heads and bureaucrats who suck up our taxpayer dollars' rant that predominates in New Zealand.

Sure, we might be unproductive, office-bound stuffed shirts who don't milk cows or drive trucks and therefore don't contribute to the economy. But given that less than ten per cent of New Zealand businesses export, and our participation in the world economy has actually dropped in the last ten years (unlike all other OECD countries), if it wasn't for academia and the public service, would we even have any international relations?.

Photos from the party:

The early arrivals sat around for a civilized chat.

But as always, the action eventually moved to party central: the kitchen.

My Peruvian friends were convinced to leave their Kiwi husbands at home for a quarter share of a 350 ml bottle of the legendary Inka Kola that I had smuggled back from their home country.

Ginny completes the double of making it into the society pages of the Dominion Post and South America Bidsta in the same month.

The Lithuanian contingent were among the most festive.

But what did Noam see lurking behind the photographer....?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I Wasn't Making It Up

A study by the International Labour Organization of 50 countries indicates that more than a quarter of the world's workforce works more than the ideal maximum of 48 hours.

Top of the list of the most overworked countries is...Peru. Yes, despite the popular perception of layabout Latinos, the study found that 50.9 percent of Peruvians work more than 48 hours per week.

Well it's striking that Peru is in very first place, I'm unsurprised that it's there or thereabouts. As I've described before, long, arduous working hours are the lot of the majority in Peru. The working week is six days long, with very few exceptions. And the most common work day is 10--12 hours in length, rather than eight. For those that must reply on informal work to get by, the day is as long as it takes to scrape together the required handful of soles.

The BBC report on the study says that:

The ILO blames the growth of service industries, such as tourism and transport, plus an expansion in informal working arrangements, for the excess of global working hours.

In general this is probably true. In the case of Peru specifically, another important reason is, ironically, the sheer lack of jobs. People who are employed in any kind of stable arrangement consider themselves fortunate, and are not in a position to demand kinder working hours or conditions. And many people are employed by small businesses that are themselves struggling to get by in the oversupplied marketplace. The hours worked by employees are driven by the hours the business needs to operate to break even.

This rather puts into context the concerns about labour standards in the trade agreement that Peru has recently negotiated with the United States. As reported in a previous post, a key element of the compromise reached by Democrat legislators and the Republican executive to allow the agreement to pass was a requirement for parties to ratify ILO labor standards. This didn't satisfy many grassroots Democrats, who angrily questioned whether the standards will be enforceable.

But while the criticisms were at times coated with a veneer of internationalism, they were, understandably, really about US internal politics and concerns. Not a lot of the critical reaction was motivated by an appreciation of Peru's position (or that or Colombia or Panama, about which I know a lot less).

Now, I fully agree that it's a good thing to have labour standards written into agreements. Jobs created by trade should be decent ones, and the right of workers to share in the benefits of increased commerce should be fundamental.

But Peru has already signed up to all the ILO principles and standards, and the general ideological mood -- unlike in the US -- is that they are fully desirable. For the meantime, however, these are less relevant than the need for more and better jobs.

It's true that the US State Department found that in Peru the existing labour regulations are poorly enforced, up to 30,000 people do forced labour, and tens of thousands of children are working.

But all this happens in an environment where people feel they have little choice. The government could certainly be more active in enforcing the employment regulations. But there's little it can do about the children sent off to wander the streets at all hours selling sweets and shining shoes. It's not multinational corporations exploiting these kids, but their unemployed mothers sending them out to help ends meet (you might ask where the fathers are, but that's another story altogether).

Peru is not Colombia, where trade union leaders have suffered the unfortunate setback of being frequently murdered (in part due to the real and imagined connections of trade union leaders with the FARC). Peruvian unions do exist, exert some muscle, and from time to time have some success in winning concessions. There's no question that the lot of miners, for example, could be greatly improved. But the most arduous conditions and worst abuses are suffered by those who can't count on a stable job, or have to work for themselves. I can't give you the stats at this point, but I would guess that the physical risks faced regularly by a Lima taxi driver would make a New York policeman blanche.

Only when there more genuine, decent sources of employment will the negotiation of a fair balance between employer and employee become the critical issue. Finding ways to raise productivity, add value to primary products and improve internal communications and infrastructure is vital to development. All these things happen in the presence of the kind of opportunities offered by stable access to large markets, which is what a trade agreement secures.

While countries like Peru shouldn't have to suck eggs and accept conditions as over-reaching as the intellectual property requirements in the original US deal, there would be very few who would argue that they'd be better off with no trade deal at all, or with an indefinitely stagnated one. In the absence of a trade agreement, extractive industries like mining and forestry (not to mention the drug trade) will carry along happily, there being generally few trade barriers to raw materials. And well-meaning people will continue to have little chance of influencing the labour standards in those industries.

Activists might beat up on Democrat leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel for 'selling out' to the Republicans, but themselves have few constructive suggestions for how to support responsible development in countries like Peru. Say what you like about Pelosi and Rangel, but you could credit them with being influenced at least in a minor way by what is really needed for Peru to improve the living standards of its people.

Categories: , , , , ,

Monday, June 04, 2007

Mercado Santa Anita: After the Fall

In the end the outcome was perhaps the best possible alternative to potential tragedy -- farcical anticlimax. Three police bulldozers broke down the back entrance of the Mercado Santa Anita, and in flooded the more than 1,000 police officers that had gathered outside in a show of overwhelming force.

First in were the the stormtrooper-like 'robocops', with their 10 kilos of electric shock-delivering body armour, who were later fawned over at length by the female TV reporters. Amidst a few salvos of teargas, and some half-hearted attempts by the occupiers to set fire to their stalls, it took just 20 minutes to clear the compound.

The tubthumping leader Fernandino Nieto, who had promised 'rivers of blood', shaved off his moustache, slicked back his hair, and tried to fade off admidst the exodus. But he was recognised by police and detained.

Official sources were eager to talk up the violent defenses that the occupiers had apparently been preparing. La Republica's reporter Alfredo Pomared put it in context with a nice piece of subtle scepticism:

As evening fell, Minister Alva Castro showed the supposed weapons that the occupiers had intended to use in their defense: grenades, shotguns, revolvers, and molotov cocktails, among others. What's certain is that La Republica was the only print media in the compound at dawn, and after a long walk, was witness to the discovery by the police of a bucket of water mixed with chili pepper and vinegar, two swords, and an air rifle for hunting small animals.

In an effort which doubled as a public relations exercise, a wave of female police officers were sent to 'rescue' the children who had been stuck in the market. Some were taken to hospital, although it was unclear how their need was assessed. It was originally intended to detain and charge the parents, but this plan was thankfully later scrapped after the judge ruled that the children hadn't, after all, been used as 'human shields'.

As the bedraggled occupants streamed away from the area clutching the few things they managed to salvage (blankets or a radio here; a live chicken there) the TV reporters from 90 Segundos were keen to ensure they didn't escape without having it rubbed in. "What did you manage to take with you?" and "are there any children?", they asked. Some people, visibly upset, shouted "don't film!" and pushed at the camera, actions which were noted as confirming their uncouthness.

With the market cleared, hard-working agricultural wholesalers in the chaotic, overcrowded La Parada area of central Lima, where around 80 percent of the city's produce is sold, were looking forward to moving to new improved premises in Santa Anita.

For those who had been occupying the premises , it was a different story. A rag-tag group clutching their few remaining possessions found their way to a small park in the barrio of Ate Vitarte. There they huddled on what was the coldest night of the year, and the next morning struggled to scrape together breakfast for the children.

Some of the Santa Anita refugees had only arrived in the market a few months previously and were bewildered by what had happened. Many had wanted to leave the compound previously, but had been prohibited from doing so by their 'leaders'. One man with a face full of woe explained how he had sold his dwelling in the countryside and paid land pirate Herminio Porras 5,000 soles ($1,600 USD) for his spot in the market.

With many residents of the area around the park quickly growing impatient with the invasion of their neighbourhood, the refugees from Santa Anita were left facing, like so many others in Peru, an uncertain and perilous future.

Categories: , ,