African factory workers in deepest Iowa

Writer Paul Street reported for Counterpunch on his experiences working alongside Congolese and Sudanese immigrant workers in a Procter & Gamble factory in Iowa.

Here in and around the liberal bastion of Iowa City, a university town where wage-earners’ working class lives are all but invisible to a large local cadre of privileged and mostly white academicians, the lower end of the workplace and the job market – the factory and warehouse positions filled by temporary labor agencies, custodial jobs, taxi drivers, etc. – is crowded with immigrants.

Paul Street

Paul Street

It is chock full of nonwhite people who feel fortunate to have any kind of job that helps them escape danger, misery terror, and oppression in far-away places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Honduras, Mexico, and Haiti.

Does anyone really believe that Iowa City’s giant Procter & Gamble plant – my low-wage, finger-wrenching workplace between from September of 2015 through February of 2016 and the origin point for many of North America’s leading hair-care products – is crawling with Congolese and Sudanese workers, along with a smattering of Central Americans, Caribbean islanders, marginal whites, Black Americans, and Africans from other states, because P&G (the nation’s 25th largest company and its top consumer packaged goods firm by far) is nobly committed to racial and ethnic diversity and a world without borders?

Of course it isn’t.  P&G reserves its better paid and more “skilled” and secure “career” production jobs almost completely for non-Hispanic whites.  These “plant technician” jobs require no more than a GED (high school equivalency) degree and start at around $20 an hour.

Street said P&G relies on Staff Management / SMX, a temporary help agency, to provide its lowest-paid workers.  They get $10 to $11.85 an hour.  SMX gets an additional fee—Street heard that it was $6—on top of that.

The work includes filling boxes on rapidly moving assembly lines with shampoo, conditioner and mouthwash bottles, building and wrapping pallets at the end of never-ending packaging-assembly lines, putting stickers on one shampoo or conditioner bottle after another, and more and worse.

It’s all performed in exchange for inadequate wages (far lower than they ought to be thanks to the SMX rake-off) and at constant risk of being sent home early and without warning since there’s often “no more product today” (that’s called “labor flexibility” and it’s no small problem for workers who already paid for a full day’s worth of child care).

He himself quit because, he found after five months of pulling apart tightly glued boxes, he could no longer clench and un-clench his fists.  The function in his hands returned after a week off the job.

Some of his African co-workers were Ph.Ds or medical doctors.  Yet they were better off doing unskilled labor in the P&G plant in Iowa City than they would have been in their war-torn homelands.

The problem is that American foreign policy is part of the reason—not the only reason, but a big part of the reason—their homelands are war-torn in the first place.  As Street noted:

queenofchaos410GsPu3iRL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The biggest number of my fellow workers came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where literally millions of Hutu civilians have been massacred and maimed by Rwandan and Ugandan militias that are backed by the U.S. and who engage in “the large scale pillage of natural resources for the benefit of U.S. and European companies. The illegally looted resources,” Diana Johnstone notes in her expose of Hillary Clinton’s long imperialist record, “include tropical timber, gold, cobalt, diamonds, zinc, uranium and especially the world’s largest deposits of coltan, a mineral essential for the computer industry.”

The second largest number of my coworkers hailed from Sudan, where the U.S.-funded South Sudanese Civil War has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives – a reflection of the Obama administration’s determination to gain control of the rich Abeye oil fields, currently developed by Washington’s most feared global-economic rival China.

Street wrote that globalization affects Iowa in many ways.

The University of Iowa Campus and adjacent Iowa City town (inhabiting a wildly different petit-bourgeois space filled with coffee shops and lecture halls just a mile and half away) is crawling with an ever-increasing number of well-off, and Lexus-driving Chinese students, children of parents who got rich off “communist” China’s emergence as the leading zone of mass consumer good manufacturing for the global capitalist market.  [snip]

The Iowa Utilities Board is about to approve the building of an eco-cidal pipeline to carry fracked, planet-cooking North Dakota (Bakken field) oil across a diagonal path through 17 Iowa counties on the way to Illinois, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the global petroleum market.

Despite living atop some of the world’s most fertile and naturally watered agricultural soil, Iowans absurdly purchase more than 80 percent of their food from outside the state.  Most of the state’s farmland gets planted post-fence to post-fence with chemically fertilizer-saturated corn and soybeans grown largely to provide animal feed and to supply regional, national, and global grain and Ethanol markets.

Military operatives stationed before glowing killing screens in a new U.S. Drone War base outside Des Moines.  They target officially designated enemies of Washington’s global war of (“on”) terror in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia

Read the whole thing.

The case for free trade is that it allows individuals in different countries to freely connnect with each other.  The ideal is that people travel freely, get to know each other and voluntarily exchange goods and services.

But there is no free choice in being at the mercy of global economic forces you don’t understand and powerful institutions you don’t control.

I believe that, given a choice, most people would prefer to stay home.  The best way to solve the migration and refugee crisis is to create conditions whereby people are empowered to stay at home without losing their lives or livelihoods.

I don’t pretend to have a master plan for bringing that about.  I do believe the best thing that the United States and other powerful countries can do is to stop spreading death and destruction, and allow countries such as Congo and Sudan to work out their own destinies in peace.

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