Banana republic blues

Eric Hubler

October 22, 1991|By Eric Hubler

SINCE MY thoughts often turn to foreign adventure when I shop at Banana Republic, during my last visit there I decided to take an imaginary voyage by reading the "Made in" labels stitched on the garments.

It was quite a trip -- China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Honduras, Thailand, Korea, Macau and someplace called "Northern Mariana Island" (the Northern Marina Islands, perhaps?).

Soon I fell into a pleasant daydream: I was lying the arms of a bewitching maiden of the Orient as we feasted on shrimp with their heads still on and other exotic things. I treated, of course, because she earned only $3 a day as a seamstress for a supplier of American retailers.

Then I snapped out my reverie and the image of my smokey-eyed seductress disappeared back into her tin-roofed shanty, where her $3-a-day job fed, clothed and housed her aged parents and half a dozen school-age siblings.

As I paid for my purchase, I looked at the woman behind the counter and thought how lucky she was to have a job, even a dead-end one, while the manufacturing jobs represented by those hundreds of denim jackets, corduroy shirts and khaki hiking pants were all overseas.

Anyone could do those jobs. The disheveled guys who panhandle me when I eat a sandwich in the park could do them. So could the desperate woman who asks for bus fare outside the video store and the sad people who crowd around the side door of the church for free meals on Saturdays.

But they don't do those jobs, and they will never get a chance to, because American law requires a minimum wage but does not shield our markets -- including our labor market -- from low-priced foreign competition. If my imaginary Asian seamstress' labor is worth very little -- $3 a day -- my unfortunate American neighbors' labor is literally worth nothing.

I asked the salesgirl, "Don't all the imports in this store bother you?"

She seemed confused. "It's only one or two lines," she said. Obviously she had a severe case of denial. But people should know the consequences of their government's policies just as they should know the consequences of their own actions.

Suddenly a mischievous comeuppance came to mind. What if, in addition to being allowed to import products produced by low-wage foreign labor, U.S. companies also were permitted to import the laborers themselves? Certainly the store clerk would be on the street faster than she could say "Will that be all, sir?" -- and my lovely Asian seamstress would get her job.

Why? That's easy. Suppose a store had four employees on the floor and paid each of them $4 an hour -- eight hours a day, six days a week. Replacing them with workers getting $3 a day would save the store more than $36,000 annually. Given that choice, the store's owner wouldn't hesitate to fire his U.S. workers and stuff his pockets.

Of course, eventually the store would go out of business. Eventually there would be fewer customers in the community, since the old workers would be unemployed and their foreign replacements would be spending half their wages to share a single room with five other recently arrived immigrants. But America's "vision thing" has never permitted us to think that far ahead, so why start now? My proposal is simply a natural extension of the way we already treat our markets and workers.

I only hope my seamstress forgives me -- forgives all of us -- when she realizes that her new home is just as poor as the banana republic she left behind.

Eric Hubler writes from Baltimore.

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