Jim Hightower

The Pentagon Peddlers

When he was mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo was charged with nepotism in the hiring of the city fire commissioner, to which he responded: “Whaddaya mean nepotism? He’s my brother!”

Likewise, the Pentagon seems confused on the concept of ethical dealings-not over the hiring of relatives, but in the buying of supplies. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which runs 1,400 stores on U.S. military bases around the world, hauling in some $7 billion a year in sales, has been getting much of the apparel in these stores from a notorious sweatshop in Nicaragua. This violates policy, regulations, common decency … and our nation’s moral principles.

The Chentex factory, owned by a Taiwanese textile conglomerate, employs 1,800 workers who sew 35,000 pairs of jeans a day. The jeans retail in the Exchange stores for about $30 a pair; workers are paid only 20 cents for each pair, an abysmal sub-poverty wage even in impoverished Nicaragua. Chentex workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom without being monitored. They work up to 70 hours a week (including forced overtime), and it’s not unusual for them to be screamed at and hit by factory managers. Not surprisingly, many have attempted to form a union, demanding an 8-cent increase on each pair of jeans-an increase that would have no impact on consumer price and would not pinch corporate profits. Yet, when more than 150 of them went on strike for this modicum of fairness, Chentex fired them.

The Pentagon is one of this sweatshop’s largest customers, meaning our tax dollars keep it in business. Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia is working to stop the Pentagon from coddling sweatshop labor by requiring any supplier to pay workers fairly and treat them decently. To learn how you can help, call McKinney’s office: 202-225-1605.

What’s on a Package?

Time for another trip into the Far, Far, Far-Out Frontiers of Free Enterprise, with Consumer Reports magazine as our guide. Let’s start with an innovation on the old Made-in-the-USA label. Tisonic Inc. makes a radio cassette player for automobiles, and the package proudly bears a rendering of our U.S. flag. But, wait … the stars on this flag are blue on a field of white. Not only are the colors reversed, but the print beneath the flag says “Made For U.S.A.”-not made in our country. Clever.

“Worrisome” is the word that might occur to you if you bought the Super Signal Booster to juice up your radio reception. The front of the package brags that the Booster uses “Secret Military Technology!” and has been a “Secret device for the military for YEARS!” The back of the package confesses: “Made in China.” Worrisome. As for logic-defying labels, how about “Chicken Noodle Vegetarian” soup? Then there’s the Krylon spray paint promo that says you can turn an old end table into a like-new treasure in only “30 minutes.” Go for it-the copy explains that all you have to do is remove all hardware, strip and scrape off the old paint, sand the table, wipe it clean and prime it, sand it again, mask areas you don’t want painted, apply one coat of paint, wait, then apply a second coat. I don’t know … sounds like maybe a 35- or 40-minute job to me.

I also appreciate the label on Food Lion’s apple cider vinegar, which brags: “Made from REAL APPLES!” Well, that’s better than making apple cider vinegar from squirrel heads.

Pain-On-the-Job

Ever had back pain? How about tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or some other chronic ailment that stabs you like an ice pick and can cripple you? A hundred million American workers perform repetitive functions that cause these injuries. Six hundred thousand a year have to miss work because of heavy lifting, assembly-line repetition, constant typing, and other tasks. Day-by-day, year-by-year, these tasks tear at their backs, wrists, elbows, muscles, and tendons, leading to chronic, debilitating pain. Late last year though, the Labor Department finally took action. After studying the matter for 10 years, OSHA issued standards to protect working families from some of these job-related injuries. The new rules range from merely providing information so employees can know about these injuries to requiring companies to provide better-designed tools and workstations.

But, oh, the squealing from corporate executives and their puppets in Congress! “We can’t bear the cost,” they wailed-never mind that many firms here and abroad already do this, and industry would actually save some $9 billion a year because of reduced worker’s comp costs and increased productivity. Stephen Bokat of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce even asserted that the problem doesn’t exist: “We don’t think there is any scientific basis to say how many repetitions are too many, how much weight is too much,” he sniffed. Really, Tiger? How much heavy lifting do you do, not counting your tongue?

Workplace injuries are a cost of doing business. Instead of making workers pay with pain and medical bills, let’s do all we can to stop hurting people on the job. n

Jim Hightower’s radio talk show broadcasts nationwide daily from Austin. His latest book is If the Gods Had Meant Us to To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates. Find him at www.jimhightower.com.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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