Digital Boycott

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 April, 2018
Editorial: 195
Fecha de publicación original: 28 diciembre, 1999

A penny saved is a penny earned

The Chicago Tribune, founded in 1849 and one of the grand old US newspapers, is putting its complete collection on the Internet thanks to the work of convicts in various prisons in Ohio. They are going to type into the computer (“computerise”) all the issues that are too old to be read by scanners. In total, four thousand million characters. The newspaper took the decision on the basis of the obvious advantages of this type of labour. The workforce is cheaper (much cheaper than child labour in Thailand), very disciplined according to their jailers –whose job it is to discourage any flighty ideas of trade unions as well — and highly trained in the Swiss sense: they are up at the sound of a whistle and all go to bed at the same time at night. In addition the initiative means considerable savings on equipment (scanners and things like that) and introduces an element of professional selectivity into Ohio’s prison population: only those skilled enough will be able to do the job. However, we should mention that the deal between the newspaper and the prison authorities was sealed just three weeks after the World Trade Organisation’s Summit in Seattle at which the US pronounced itself in high-flown terms against any kind of slave labour and in favour of developing countries adopting social policies that would bring them into line with the industrialised ones.

In fact, this was one of the key reasons for the failure of the Seattle conference. It was not the first time that the US has maintained, at different forums –climate change, the hole in the ozone layer, biodiversity, deforestation, trade, etc. — that there can be no global agreement until developing nations agree to abide by labour regulations acceptable to the “civilised nations” . By this they mean everything from the universalization of the social rights of the entire workforce in the Third World, to the abolition of child labour and the establishment of work ethics to guarantee the dignity of workers. Unless these prerequisites are complied with, the Department of Commerce will boycott these countries and exclude them from trade agreements, and other measures to bring pressure to bear on offending countries until they come to their senses and end ” this comparative affront to fair competition”.

Developing nations, at all these meetings, have always manifest their agreement as long as the price of such social transition comes from the rich, as part of the “historical account” which allowed the latter to accumulate capital by exploiting their own and other workforces at will, using child labour in their countries and in others and denying them their social rights for decades. If this is not the case, these countries say, demanding overnight changes without any aid as a “sine qua non” condition for reaching international trade agreements, is a clear indication of the lack of real interest in affecting these changes and of their use as a tool for political bullying.

And the case of the Chicago Tribune illustrates the latter. The newspaper first did what many companies in their position in rich countries do and that was to try to use cheap Indian labour to get all their back issues copied onto computers, the perfect definition of “digitalising” the complete collection of their newspaper. For some reason, the idea didn’t work and US “Indians”, the prisoners, “managed” by the Ohio state penitentiary, from Belmont, North Central and Mansfield prisons, were used instead. The newspaper paid the administration a million dollars for the 4,000 million characters. As a result, they will get their archive on the Internet for the reasonable price of the 47 cents an hour that each prisoner will earn, 100 dollars a month, a competitive salary in India and some other south-east Asian countries.

Moreover, the prisoners will not even get paid in cash. Their salary will be deposited into bank accounts for buying the few products available in the prison shop or for making phone calls. In other words, a kind of primitive capitalism, similar to that employed by the mining industry in the past. As if this were not enough, the newspaper has been publicly announcing with pride that it is helping prisoner rehabilitation. The old trick of claiming that child labour and prison work is all for a good cause.

When it became known that Nike was using child labour for manufacturing its sports goods, a boycott against the company was started by numerous organisations, some of whom –US based– even employed research teams to verify this fact. I wonder if we should not do the same on the Internet and, as Bill Clinton advocated at the WTO summit, propose a “digital boycott” against companies like the Chicago Tribune for using prison labour at slave rates and in a situation where workers are unable to defend their rights, since they are not employed as such. For this reason, for a start, I have not included the link to this newspaper’s site. Later we’ll see what other suggestions the WTO makes for us to follow if they have even heard of the case at all.

​Translation: Bridget King​