By Myra Saturen
March 27, 2014
Opportunity or exploitation? At the fourth annual Peace & Justice Conference at Northampton Community College (NCC), author and world traveler Kelsey Timmerman repeatedly asked the audience this question while describing the lives of farm and garment workers he met on journeys over the world. He got to know many of the people who produce the clothes we wear and the food we eat, without our thinking about the items' origins.
Kelsey Timmerman is the author of WHERE AM I WEARING? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes and WHERE AM I EATING? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy. To unveil working conditions, Timmerman joined his subjects at their labor.
What poses as opportunity is often exploitation, Timmerman explained. For example, what did Solo, a coca worker in Ivory Coast, tell Timmerman about his labor? "It is good, it enables me to earn money," Solo said. But Timmerman soon discovered that Solo did not in fact make any money. Furthermore, Solo referred to his supervisor as his "master," Solo was a slave. Lured from Ghana with promises of excellent pay, he instead suffered hunger, beatings and worse. What had been presented to Solo as an opportunity turned out to be enslavement. Solo longed to return to Ghana. Under threat of arrest, Timmerman hired Solo as a translator so that he could earn money to return to his country. Then, one day, Solo disappeared. Did he escape? Was he captured? Timmerman wondered. Later, he learned that Solo was back on the same cocoa farm.
Juan, a banana worker in Costa Rica, said "thank God for this job." Wielding a machete to cut bananas off trees, he lost a finger and broke his hand, which is now useless for lack of medical treatment. In a small town with no other work available, Juan, with one hand, hauls 7-8 heavy bunches of bananas every 15 minutes.
In a Honduran factory, Arifa earns $24 a month, while the cost to rent a tiny apartment for her and her three children is $15 a month.
Timmerman talked about Rashma Begum, a Bangladeshi woman who moved from a farm to a garment factory, told that opportunity awaited her there. Alarmed by cracks in the concrete building, she hesitated but entered the structure and took her place at a sewing machine. Her routine was going to work and coming home, but one day she did not return for 17 days. She was trapped in the debris of the collapsed factory, in which 1,129 garment workers died. The last to be pulled out alive, she had survived on water from puddles and crackers.
At a Cambodia city dump, hordes of adults and children jump into trash piles, searching for anything of value to sell. Nearby, burning garbage spews a nauseating stench. For this, children receive 25 cents a day; adults receive $1. Timmerman found that many of the workers were former farmers. "My hell on earth was someone's 'opportunity,' " Timmerman said. "A mother who loves her children just as we do, must send her children off to work [in these conditions] because she has to."
Timmerman pointed out that "we are all connected through the global economy and our humanity." What can we do to improve farm and factory workers' lives? He recommends supporting fair trade projects wherever they can be found. He urged his listeners to travel and see what life is like in other places. Through NCC, trips are available, many of them subsidized by scholarships.
In addition to the keynote speaker, the Peace & Justice Conference included student poster and written presentations, a community expo, the Shanthi Project Yoga: A Trauma Informed Model for Incarcerated Youths and Adults, and a global community open forum.
Students who made presentations included JoAnne Chermowitz, on "Walmart, Equal Opportunity Employer," Michael W. Schmidt, "The Effects of Income Inequality on Education," and Kristen Wagner, "Gender Inequality in the Workplace." Chermowitz contrasted Sam Walton's 10 principles of fair workplace conditions with the chain's unsavory realities. Schmidt demonstrated the widening gap in educational access between the well-off and poorer people. Kristin Wagner showed that "glass ceilings" still hinder women from earning as much as men or having the same opportunities for advancement.
The event was sponsored by the humanities and social science divisions of NCC, political science department, communications department, Political Science Club, and the NCC Forum on Peace, Justice & Conflict Resolution. Timmerman's talk was also a part of the Cohen Lecture Series in the Humanities, established at Northampton Community College in 1986 through the generosity of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Cohen.
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