April 04, 2020

Circles of dollars, goodness

It is October and we are in El Salvador, a delegation of 16 people from Penobscot and Hancock Counties here to learn about the impact of free-trade policies on Maine and Central America. We represent a spectrum of organizations concerned with Maine jobs, services, and natural resources placed at risk by international trade agreements. I’m along because I am a geographer who writes and studies about the environment and how it fares under globalization. But I am also here to close a circle in my experience and understanding, a circle that begins on a cold winter day in 1992 at Dysart’s truck stop in Hermon.

We were there to say goodbye to a rebuilt Mercedes truck, part of a caravan of trucks bringing needed supplies to the repatriated villages of El Salvador, where peasant farmers and their families having fled the civil war returned in the face of war to reclaim their land and villages. Our truck is filled with medical supplies, corrugated roofing, children’s toys and school supplies, and seven pedal sewing machines for Bangor’s sister city, the 300-person village of Carasque nestled in the mountains near the border with Honduras. Thus begins the circle of goodness that ties Central Maine to Carasque and El Salvador. Over 12 years, the circle has been maintained by delegations of Mainers and Salvadorans, by material assistance and crafts produced on those sewing machines, by monthly phone calls and school kids letters, and by inspiration and ideas. The venerable “Bangor truck ” still serves its sister city as community truck, bus, and at times ambulance. But today, we ride the truck as a fun bus to swim in the river a mile below the village.

We also learn on this trip how our circle of goodness interacts with two other circles – of jobs and dollars. Over the same dozen years, Maine has lost some 20,000 manufacturing jobs, particularly in wood products, textiles, and shoes. Some of those jobs are in El Salvador in “free trade zones” where companies send fabric to be sewn into finished garments in textile assembly plants (“maquilas”), which are then exported back for sale, tax and tariff-free. Some 86,000 Salvadorans work in these maquilas which are owned by Salvadorans, Asians, and Americans.

In the most moving of our encounters, we meet with three women workers and learn of their constant struggle to stretch earnings of $150 a month that might support a young single person living at home but must support a single mother, her children, her housing, her child care, and health care. We learn of their long hours both of work and commuting, of their insecurity as they lack either union protection or regulatory enforcement of Salvadoran labor laws, and most of all of the many indignities suffered as factory owners, push for more and more production both from greed and fear of competition from even more exploitive Asian sweat shops.

The circle of job losses returns to us in the labels such as Dockers and Levis from the mall or in the cheap clothes in Wal-Mart’s. But Mainers have already recognized that only by helping to equalize working conditions in other parts of the world can we create a slightly more level playing field on which to staunch the outflow of Maine jobs. Thus the cities of Bangor, Biddeford, Orono, Scarborough, and the state of Maine have anti-sweatshop selective purchasing laws that require bidders for government contracts to affirm compliance with established international standards of ethical production.

But the major exports of El Salvador are neither its traditional exports of coffee or the flow of assembled textiles but are the Salvadoran people themselves. There are about 8.5 million Salvadorans, of whom 2.3 million live and work in the United States. They are the largest single source of Salvadoran income, remitting home some $2 billion a year. Many came during the war years; however the numbers continue to swell as the agricultural products that were the mainstay of local small farmer production-corn, beans and sorghum – can no longer compete with cheap subsidized imports and are only produced for family subsistence. In Bangor’s sister village of Carasque, most families have at least one family member who has left because life in the village was unsustainable.

The (mostly) men willing to risk their lives to emigrate to the U.S. in order to find work sweeping floors, washing dishes, cleaning hotel rooms, picking apples are often the most motivated people in their communities. Their wives and children, who receive remittances, obviously suffer in other ways. And the pool of cheap labor found in our many immigrant communities puts downward pressure on our own job markets. The circular flow of people northward and of dollars southward was described by Salvadoran economists as the circle of “poor dollars.” They are actual dollars because El Salvador uses U.S. dollars and cents as its own currency. Indeed, the dollars of the poor do return, often to purchase goods imported by the handful of families that control the Salvadoran economy.

I am not against globalization – indeed the circle of goodness is very much part of what many call globalization from below. But the circles of job loss, and exploited labor, and of poor dollars ending up as rich dollars, makes me a skeptic of free trade, an advocate for fair trade and grateful to live in a community that knows the difference!

Robert Kates is a geographer and independent scholar in Trenton, former Director of the World Hunger Program at Brown University, and an executive editor of Environment magazine.

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