The Global Village, Where They Offshore Crock

April 7, 2010

Are we living in the “global village” that Marshall McLuhan theorized? The experiences and reflections discussed here will lead me to argue that the very notion was insensitive to the real world that McLuhan was misrepresenting. “The global village” could only be imagined by an academic cut off from the real world in the service of an elite looking to promote its interests and increase its profits. Here’s why:

Gildan Activewear, a huge clothing company based in Montreal, subcontracts its production to Allain Villard, a Haitian man whose family owns a number of sweatshops, and much else, in Port-au-Prince. Several of the buildings at their compound in Carrefour, Palm Apparel, collapsed during the earthquake, killing approximately 1,000 workers. In Canada, Gildan issued a press release for its investors, assuring them that production would not be interrupted and also making a number of generous commitments in relation to its employees and the families of the victims. The company claimed that it would look into compensating the families of the victims and that it was planning a number of initiatives to help its workers: food and medical aid, including psychological counselling for the survivors.

When I told Joegodson of this, he and his friend Lundi, a middle-aged accountant – homeless, jobless, and with no prospects – set off by bus for Carrefour on March 11, 2010 to see if that corresponded to the reality of the workers’ lives. Carrefour is a huge, poor district – a zon chò, or hot zone, in the local vocabulary – next to Port-au-Prince. Local people directed them to the Palm Apparel compound. Joegodson asked children if they knew of Palm Apparel. The kids called it kay Villard: Villard’s place. Once at Palm, they engaged the security guards in conversations. They chatted with the street merchants who sell rice to the workers who come out everyday for their lunch break at 11:30. They spoke with the workers on their short lunch break. They talked with local people whose loved ones had been crushed by the collapsing buildings during the quake.

It was eerie to realize how little the earthquake had changed for these people. The street merchants continue to sell their plates of rice to the workers who pour out of the doors of the big factory everyday at the same time. As before, they sell the rice on credit, because the workers cannot afford to pay for it until payday, every two weeks. Two months after the earthquake, there was no more talk of compensation for the families of the victims. No one had seen any food or medical aid.

The research that Joegodson and Lundi did that day is not worth much in Port-au-Prince. It is not news there that companies from North America exploit their Haitian employees mercilessly. In North America, the corporate and national media that report on Haiti never discuss the working and living conditions of the workers. This is an enormous “oversight” given that they are the Haitians most connected to North America. Haitians working in the sweatshops of Haiti that subcontract work from the North American clothing giants are part of one economy.

The North American press has constructed a recognizable framework for discussion of post-quake Haiti. Haitians are victims who need help. And so North Americans donate generously. However, the Haitians that are working in the sweatshops are also victims of a vicious system of exploitation that has long preyed upon the weakest and most desperate people. It’s not hard to see that the “victims of the earthquake” construction of Haitians would not sit well with coverage that discussed the “victims of imperialism” or “victims of globalization.”

Canadians care very much about Haitians, the victims of a natural disaster. Do they care about the Haitians, the victims of a rapacious economic model of production? What happens when we are talking about the same Haitians? What is more important in the daily life of a Haitian worker: the sweatshop or the earthquake? That is an academic question not worth very much in the daily lives of people who have to live with both.

After his return from Carrefour, Joegodson, Lundi, and I discussed the meaning of the day’s work. Trying to understand Canadians, Joegodson asked why, if they had given so much money in aid, there was nothing for the workers. Canadians care about Haitians as Haitians. Canadians show no concern about Haitians as workers. They have found ways to live with the contradiction. Canadians are willing to donate enormous sums of money to help victims of a natural disaster, but will not act to protect the same people from man-made, on-going disasters. But when the Haitians are workers and the workers are Haitians, Joegodson asked, how can you separate them? We found many answers to that vital question. Even those who would like to see a more just economic system based on respect for human rights are caught in a system of exploitation that has been centuries in the making. Once we open the question for discussion, we see there is no end to the ways that we all participate in injustice and exploitation. We, Haitian and Canadian, allow it. When Canadians accept corporate and national news passively, they subconsciously fill in the blanks. Should they discover that Haitians work in assembly plants for Canadian corporations, they must decide for themselves why that is the case, because they will get no help from the Haitian workers: the only people qualified to answer. Why? Answer: There are no channels of communication open to them. Canadians must imagine for themselves the conditions under which the Haitians work, as long as they have no access to the workers themselves. And the answers that they are likely to come up with, in the absence of any testimony from the workers, will be speculative. I suspect few ever get even that far.

It was in the face of these discussions that Joegodson and I, along with a number of his friends, decided to create a space in which Haitians who normally have no voice in the media of North America may speak as directly as possible to those in North America, or anywhere, who are not satisfied with the fact that they are forced to imagine what life is like for Haitians. Moreover, here on this website, Haitians can say what they want, rather than have their voices muffled and stage-managed by the corporate media.

These experiences also lead me to see the shallowness of the notion of “the global village.” The more I speak with my friends in Haiti, the more I see that our communications industry is not working to bring us together, but to keep us apart. The very poor and exploited do not speak for themselves in the international press. In this website, I am constantly aware of the fact that I have to mediate the communications coming out of Haiti. The poor in Haiti are mostly illiterate Creole-speakers with no access to the media, beyond battery-powered radios. That means that mediation will be necessary for English-and French-speaking North American readers. Nevertheless, we are looking for ways to overcome those obstacles. We are finding various options, despite our lack of resources.

Stay tuned.

Paul Jackson

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