Monday, July 24, 2006

Bringing New Meaning to Free Trade

By Diane M. Grassi

America's national pastime has continued to rake in record high revenues in the past few years, yet it continues to remain deaf to its critics concerning the manufacture of its equipment and uniforms with regard to unfair labor practices in the third world. Specifically, for example, Major League Baseball has an exclusive licensing agreement with Rawlings Sporting Goods, a subsidiary of K2, Inc. since 2003, to produce all of its major leagues' and minor leagues' baseballs.

In 2004, a 60-page report produced by the National Labor Committee (NLC), an international labor rights organization entitled "Foul Ball," shed light on the poor working conditions of the Rawlings baseball factory in the remote city of Turrialba, Costa Rica. MLB had a tepid response to such claims. Following the report, life-long consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote a letter to both MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Donald Fehr to address Rawlings' labor practices. Selig referred Nader's letter to his legal department and Donald Fehr said he was unaware of such claims.

In 2005, the United States government entered into the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), allowing for further tax breaks for U.S. corporations doing business in Central America and without providing for genuine policing of unfair labor practices in offshore U.S. manufacturing. And instead of MLB taking the lead and coming out a winner in addressing a worldwide problem, which continues to fester in such U.S. based multi-national corporations throughout the third world, it remains silent some two years later.

The facts are quite striking as to what goes into the manufacture of a major league baseball and the sometimes physically debilitating human labor required to produce some 2.2 million balls utilized each baseball season, with MLB using 1.8 million of them, in addition to the minor leagues and the NCAA College World Series with which Rawlings also exclusively contracts.

Rawlings has been operating its baseball factory out of Costa Rica since 1988 as it gradually transitioned its factories from the country of Haiti during its period of government unrest in the late 1980s. Since 1990, Rawlings has produced all of MLB's baseballs in Costa Rica. It manufactures apparel and other equipment there as well. Its low-end baseballs are manufactured in China. And although Rawlings also contracts with the National Football League and the National Basketball Association in producing some of their equipment and balls, the baseball itself perhaps best symbolizes all-things-American and therefore is worthy of the attention it garners.

The approximate 600 workers at the baseball factory in Turrialba are either "sewers" who stitch the cowhide covers onto the baseball's sphere, or they are assemblers and winders who are responsible for assembling the core's parts, made of two kinds of rubber and cork, and the winding of the ball's four different grades of yarn. Those who stitch are required to complete 108 stitches into the cowhide leather of each ball by hand.

Each sewer must complete one ball every 15 minutes. They are required to reach a minimum quota of 156 balls a week in a factory without air conditioning, in temperatures exceeding 90°, requiring permission to use bathrooms, and denying speaking between workers on the factory floor. The hours that workers put in average 11 per day and they must always reserve their Saturdays for the factory in the event an "emergency order" comes through. If not available on Saturday, they are terminated.

The gross wages per worker average $1.15 per hour. Workers can earn an additional $7.42 per week if they reach the threshold of completing 180 baseballs in one week. Baseball factory workers earn more than the country's minimum wage, but have not gotten an increase in the amount they are paid for each ball completed for 15 years. Provided they reach the minimum weekly ball quota each week, they are compensated an additional 25-30 cents per baseball. Should they not reach the minimum quota, they risk being fired.

The physical impact endured by the sewers has left one-third with carpal tunnel syndrome or repetitive stress injuries, including permanent disability after just two or three years of stitching. And sadly, most MLB players have no knowledge that every baseball is made solely by hand under such conditions. Should a worker miss any length of time greater than a couple of days for illness or injury, they are easily replaced.

Costa Rica always relied upon its agriculture to sustain its people and provide jobs. Coffee and sugar cane were its main exports. Yet, in the past few years as prices in coffee rose, a good part of its business was lost to Nicaragua as labor was cheaper there. And due to cheaper labor costs, sugar cane soon followed. Because of the loss of jobs, the baseball factory is now what sustains the city of Turrialba with a population of 30,000. Rawlings has its workers over a barrel, as they know jobs are scarce with many more willing to endure their tough and pressurized working environment.

Ralph Nader's letter in 2004 to both Bud Selig and Donald Fehr was in his capacity as President of his non-profit organization, League of Fans. In it, he says, "We cannot tell you that it comes as a shock to us that MLB properties do not have any workers' rights guidelines in their licensing agreements. ... Nor are we surprised by the irony of the Players Associations' Strike Fund being supported by royalties from products which might be made by third world workers stripped of their own rights. The irony is bitter."

Basically, it comes down to three areas which the NLC has called upon Rawlings of Costa Rica, S.A. to change. They have asked that Rawlings provide ergonomics training for workers in order to reduce repetitive stress injuries, and to provide workers with a better wage and increase the amount of incentives based upon levels of production. And the NLC emphasizes the need to allow the workers the right to organize in order to regulate problem issues, without fear of being fired, such as forced overtime and layoffs after three months before workers earn any legal rights. Currently, the workers are well aware that any talk of labor unions will get them dismissed and fear that the factory will go the way of its agricultural industry and relocate to a country where labor is cheaper.

But Ralph Nader is far more direct in his demand that MLB and the MLBPA "adopt internationally recognized worker rights standards and effective enforcement mechanisms, as a core condition governing all of its product sourcing and license agreements."

Few working for or playing in MLB or for that matter most living in the U.S., realize that Free Trade Zones are nothing but a win for U.S.-based corporations operating offshore. They are not required to pay taxes or tariffs, allowed to import their supplies duty-free, their electricity and water usage is subsidized and they are not responsible for enforcing labor and environmental policies which would be required in the U.S.

In February of 2004, Robert Manfred, Jr., the Executive VP of Labor and Human Resources for MLB, responded to Ralph Nader on behalf of the Commissioner. His response says it all. "Our agreements routinely include provisions that require our partners to comply with applicable laws including those related to employment and workplace safety. At the same time, I am sure you understand that we are not in a position to actively regulate the practices of each and every separate company with which we do business." No, but they could start with the ball, the centerpiece of America's pastime.

It is not too late for MLB and its superstars to take a stand on workers' rights, regardless of lax U.S. laws in the world of free trade and its agreements' legal loopholes. Bud Selig, when interviewed at the 2006 All-Star Game, stated that, "I really believe this is the Golden Era of baseball." Many have scratched their heads since that remark but he followed up to say, "Do you know we will have $5.2 billion in revenue this year? I feel good about where we are." It is quite clear about what he means by the golden era. Sadly, however, some of that gold has come at the cost of others' basic rights and human decency.

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