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Free trade means rags for us, riches for them

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New World Trade Organisation rules could spell disaster for small countries dependent on the textile industry, writes GS Radhakrishna
Issue 1934

THIRD WORLD countries are often told that free trade will bring them prosperity. But in Mauritius—a small African island state just east of Madagascar—we know this claim is a myth.

At the beginning of this year the global quota system for textiles was abolished. The result is likely to be economic disaster. At the moment around 75,000 of the island’s 549,000 workers are employed in the textile industry.

Many of them will lose their jobs. And it’s not just Mauritius—Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Fiji, Uganda, Jamaica, Mongolia and Nepal will also be affected. Oh, and one more…Sri Lanka, one of the countries devastated by the tsunami!

One study suggested that worldwide up to 27 million people could lose their jobs—mainly women. The quota system shares out countries’ access to the world’s biggest markets—in particular the US and the EU. On 1 January the World Trade Organisation (WTO) scrapped this agreement.

The textile industry in Mauritius is no workers’ paradise. It is dominated by companies from Hong Kong and other parts of China, attracted by cheap labour and profitable investment. But textile workers earn up to $150 a month, far more than in most nearby states. Companies accepted this relatively “expensive” labour

because of the trade advantages—in particular the ability to grab some of Mauritius’ textile quota on world markets.

Once these quotas are stripped away, workers in Mauritius will be undercut by cheap labour in China, and most of us will be hurled out of work.

Atma Shanto, president of the Federation of United Workers which represents Mauritian textile workers, says that the new trade rules “will have a devastating socio-economic impact across the whole of Africa.

“Over the years, mothers have used their income from the textile sector to put their kids through school and now we are finding that, as they lose their jobs, they are pulling their kids out of school so they can find jobs to help make ends meet.

“The loss of jobs for many textile workers has already seen women turning to prostitution and men to crime.”

We do not see the Chinese workers—on a fraction of our pitiful wages—as competitors. We see them as our comrades.

But we are faced with the madness of a system that pits one worker against another.

The only people who benefit are the clothing producers and retailers who sell cheap textiles at huge profits.

The WTO claims the new system will mean cheaper clothes in the EU and US.

I don’t believe it—I think that companies will make even greater profits and that countries like Mauritius will be hurled backwards.

Already, as the abolition of quotas approached, there were a succession of company closures in Mauritius, which already have seriously raised unemployment.

Several Hong Kong-owned groups already have left the country, and unemployment has risen to 15 percent.

Free trade sounds good—but it is not the answer. The answer is a world where we do not have to fight one another for a few crumbs from the rich.

GS Radhakrishna is a textile worker from Mauritius

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