Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0123
June 7, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

LEON LEE: The people here is not that flexible. You have to motivate them. There are a lot of turnover. Come to the point that if they make enough money they might like to take a few day off to spend money.

KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, globalization and crime in Jamaica.

PATRICK ROBERTS: Most of the nights, like living in a ghetto like this, if you sleep it’s like committing suicide. Because we have to keep awake.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.

PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Jamaica’s economy has suffered during much of the last decade. The mining, agriculture, and garment industries are still in decline.

MCHUGH: The island nation faces these problems in part because it followed US prescriptions for globalization-but then the rules changed. Common Ground‘s Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich begins his report at a garment factory in Kingston’s free trade zone.

[sound of machinery at a factory]

LEON LEE: Yeah, my name is Leon Lee. General Manager of Trendy Collections over in Jamaica.

[sound of machinery]

LEE: Shall we start from the beginning part, the cutting area here?

[sound of machinery]


[sound of machinery]

EHRLICH: Welcome to Jamaica’s economic hope for the future-at least it was 20 years ago. Back then the US gave Jamaica preferential trading quotas to sell jeans, polo shirts, and other garments to America. Factory owners from Hong Kong and Korea flooded into Jamaica’s specially created free trade zones like this one. Tens of thousands of workers got jobs.

LEE: When the container arrived here, we’d unload the container…

EHRLICH: Under terms of US trade laws, companies imported everything for making the garments. Textiles had to come from the US; not even the needles and thread were manufactured locally. It guaranteed export sales for US textile mills and cheap garments for American clothing companies, but did little to help the Jamaican economy in the long run because no other support industries were created.

LEE: The design always be given, you know. We just do whatever we are told to do. And as a matter of fact, in the beginning we do the, the cutting was do here. But right now we have all the cut panel done in the orient. They ship us the cut panel. We just do the assembly here, in this plant.

[sound of machinery]

EHRLICH: In many ways this is a typical third world garment factory. Thousands of shirts are piled everywhere. Women hunch over old sewing machines, rapidly stitching sleeves and collars. There’s no air conditioning, so in the summertime it gets very, very hot. And of course, the women sew shirts with famous American brand names.

EHRLICH: OK, now here are some shirts with J. Crew; here are some more with Izod.

LEE: Yeah, Izod. Yeah, these also Philip Van Heusen. They also give us good orders now. These are ladies; some are men.

EHRLICH: And these are all very big brand names; very well known.

LEE: Yeah! Pretty good customer. These are our major customers so far. They give pretty big orders.

EHLICH: Listen closely and you hear something rather unusual for this English-speaking country.

[Announcement over a P.A. system in Chinese]

EHRLICH: Trendy Collections imports supervisors, skilled workers, and even sewing machine operators from China. Plant manager Lee says the Chinese workers cost more than the locals because he must pay their airfare, local housing, and transport to work. But, he says, the company bears the extra cost because Jamaican workers are not reliable.

LEON LEE: The people here is not that flexible. You have to motivate them. There are a lot of turnover. Come to the point that if they make enough money they might like to take a few day off to spend money. And all this kind of attitude, you know.

EHRLICH: Lee leaves the factory floor and unlocks the door to his air conditioned office. [sound of opening door] Foreign companies give all kinds of reasons why investing here is a problem. Crime is high; infrastructure is bad; the government is incompetent. But mostly owners complain about the high cost of Jamaican labor compared to other Third World countries. Garment companies have been leaving the island at an alarming rate. Some 20,000 Jamaican workers have lost their jobs over the past four years.

LEE : Five and a half years ago our factory building belonged to a Korean factory, and then eventually after about two years or whatever, they completely just pull away from this island. Close down completely the operation here in Jamaica. They move to, to Bangladesh or somewhere like that.

EHRLICH: Jamaica is running into the reality of globalization. Even if workers here labored for starvation wages they couldn’t compete with the low labor costs in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In fact, Lee doesn’t see much future for large garment factories in Jamaica.

LEE: The labor rate here compared to other developing country is not particular any advantage. Plus, the utility and all that is more expensive. So maybe if you tried, though, a big factory might not be worthwhile, you know.

EHRLICH: It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was fighting leftist governments in Grenada and Nicaragua the US wanted to help Caribbean governments by doling out favorable trading perks. Globalization is supposed to promote free trade and improve economies. In reality it serves US foreign policy and investment needs, according to Peter King. King, a former Jamaican trade representative to Washington and now a special envoy with the rank of ambassador, says free market advocate Reagan wasn’t above manipulating markets if it furthered his anti-Communist agenda. At first, US policy was quite helpful, says Ambassador King, because it helped create the Jamaican garment industry almost from scratch.

PETER KING: We capitalized on that in the context of an America very concerned about Sandinistas, the Grenada revolt, and the worry that there would be destabilization in this region because of ideologies. And we were able to negotiate a bilateral agreement on trade for textiles which gave us perhaps in many areas the largest quotas that any country had-certainly of our size. Reagan announced this special garment access initiative. And our industry took off. We moved from $15 million of exports to $525 million of exports over a 14-year period. There were times when we were rollicking along at 83 percent growth per annum. We were the fastest growing apparel producer in the world and we were number seven in supply to the United States.

EHRLICH: But by the 1990s the leftists governments of Grenada and Nicaragua were out of power, and so was Reagan. George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton pushed countries to adopt free market policies. Jamaica got no more trading perks. The country went into deep recession as mining, garment, and agriculture began to collapse. By the late 1990s 15 percent of Jamaicans were unemployed and 34 percent lived below the official poverty line. Danny Roberts, a vice president of the Jamaican Confederation of Trade Unions, strongly criticizes US policy.

DANNY ROBERTS: People are looking for cheap labor as a means of cutting cost and trying to remove the rights and the benefits that workers currently enjoy as a means of trying to put themselves in, in a competitive advantage. We have struggled for many years for certain rights and freedoms, which we are going to cherish and protect rather jealously.

EHRLICH: It’s no surprise that trade union leaders criticize the US and groups like the World Trade Organization. But so do high Jamaican government officials. Ambassador King says Jamaica is one of the Third World’s most outspoken countries on globalization issues.

KING: I’m a supporter of a jolly good re-look at the World Trade Organization. It works for the big countries. It doesn’t work for the small countries. The concept of a green room in which half of the countries can settle the fate of the rest of the world, tradewise, is absolutely over. Right? And we will have none of it. When we went to Punta del Este to negotiate the terms of the Uruguay Round, the rubric was “It’s going to be more trade for more nations.” True-there’s been more trade, but regrettably it’s been for fewer nations. And we in the Caribbean and Africa are not counted amongst that few. The interests of small developing countries have not been significant, sufficiently taken into account, which I think was the cry that we heard at Seattle.

EHRLICH: Government officials don’t blame the US for all of Jamaica’s economic problems. Corruption, high crime, and a poor education system all contribute to the problem. Ambassador King says his island must face the reality of competition from cheaper wage countries. And he says Jamaican workers must make sacrifices.

KING: We are going to have to look very seriously at our labor environment. We have a 40-hour work week. Others in the Caribbean have 46- and 48-hour work week. We have to introduce flexible working hours.

DANNY ROBERTS: There is now an attempt to exploit labor.

EHRLICH: Union Federation Vice President Roberts.

DANNY ROBERTS: What we are seeking to prevent is an attempt to have a reduction in standard, a lowering of the standards of human rights and labor rights and all of those things, which is going to begin to, begin to perhaps in many senses move some of us back to the rule of force and a third world plantation culture and bring about the kind of forced labor situation and exploitation.

EHRLICH: Roberts argues that rather than lowering wages, Jamaica must improve its infrastructure, educational system, and productivity.

DANNY ROBERTS: There are now studies which show that those who seek the race to the bottom, those countries are going to be worse off than those which seek to educate their workers, to understand the importance of the knowledge-base worker as a critical fact in the new economic dispensation. And to make sure that what they have are workers with the competence level, the expertise, the ability, and the education, the knowledge to improve the efficiency and productivity of the enterprise.

[sound of traffic on a busy street]

EHRLICH: This is not just an academic debate between union and government leaders. Globalization is having a direct impact here in the neighborhoods of Kingston. Since the mid-1990s, Jamaica has had negative economic growth, causing huge problems for ordinary people. Charmane Morris is an office worker; her husband is an auto mechanic.

CHARMANE MORRIS: Economically, I say I’m worse off than five years ago. Because five years ago I had more money to spend. You know? And I wasn’t always thinking about the bills. We pay the bills and then we’ll, we go to a movie. Or we’ll, you know, we’ll go out or we’ll do something. We can buy something over our weekend and things. Now if I go to the movies I know it’s a bill, you know. If I, if we go to the country for a weekend this is like six months of planning and saving to go away for a holiday.

EHRLICH: Business leaders constantly tell Jamaicans that globalization properly implemented will solve their problems. Old industries, such as garment, will fade, but new ones based on information technology, will take their place. Charmane Morris wonders if it will work out that way.

MORRIS: I don’t think it’s gonna solve the problem. I know they have no choice, because the rest of the world is really flattening down. I mean, communication is dropping down to, you know, to seconds. Everything is, all the markets are going down. Free market is reigning everywhere. So I don’t think we have a choice We can’t sit back and expect people to protect us and expect our goods to go everywhere. We have to prepare for that. But as to making our lives easier, maybe the next 20 years, you know. Maybe my daughter, yeah, my daughter will be fine with globalization, but I think I’m gonna struggle through it.

EHRLICH: Jamaican leaders are investing in IT, or information technology. But IT isn’t developing new software for the Internet or even manufacturing microchips. So far in Jamaica IT means telemarketing and call centers.

[sound of a busy call center]

TELEPHONE OPERATOR: Good morning, Western Union.

EHRLICH: This particular call center serves Western Union clients throughout the Caribbean. But many Jamaican call centers are directly wired to the US Americans with questions about their AT&T phones may be speaking with an operator in Montego Bay. Call Center Manager Errol Coleman notes that working conditions here are far better than at many traditional jobs.

EHRLICH: [to Coleman] So roughly how many people work here?

ERROL COLEMAN: Sixty-four persons.

EHRLICH: Right, right. It’s very nicely air conditioned. It is very nice working conditions.

COLEMAN: We try. The idea is staff persons be as productive as possible and be productive. You know, they need to be comfortable.

TELEPHONE OPERATOR: Eight hundred dollars. That’s the current amount.

COLEMAN: Call centers are growing. If you were to take a survey of the persons who currently use Internet, 95 percent of the persons will tell you that they’re not getting serviced, that they don’t have a direct contact back to the company that they’re surfing the Web. Hence there’s a big scope for call centers.

EHRLICH: And Jamaican companies hope to benefit from that expected growth in American call centers. All the workers here are college educated. US companies set up call centers in Jamaica because the workers are fluent in English and learn quickly. But mostly, the wages are cheap.

COLEMAN: The labor force is cheaper, it’s cheaper operationally to operate out of say, here, than it would be in the States. It works out to approximately thirty thousand Jamaican.

EHRLICH: That’s about $700 US dollars per month. Telemarketing and call centers provide jobs for a few thousand women, but everything they use-the phones, computers, and office equipment, are manufactured somewhere else. From an economic standpoint call centers are a lot like garment factories-they don’t help create new industries. Owners can shut them down and move to India or some other country with even lower wages. Ambassador King acknowledges there are dangers in limiting information technology to telemarketing and call centers.

KING: We don’t wish to go make the errors of our ways that we did in apparel, where we went to really low value, low profit. We are going to go to the top end. The government has established the Caribbean Institute of Technology, which is a joint venture between the University of Leicester, Fordham University in the United States, and the three Jamaican universities, along with the Ministry of Industry.

EHRLICH: If Jamaica can develop more sophisticated IT industries it could significantly help the economy. But Jamaica faces tough competition from countries such as India, Israel, and Hungary, all of which have highly developed education systems and long-established high tech industries.

[sound of machinery]

EHRLICH: In Craigtown, an impoverished area of Kingston, a class convenes every Saturday night that begins with the Jamaican pledge of allegiance.

[a class cites the Jamaican pledge of allegiance in unison]

EHRLICH: None of the young men here qualify to work in call centers. In fact, many of them see the government’s plans for IT as a way to perpetuate US economic domination of Jamaica, according to student Anthony Perry.

ANTHONY PERRY: We are just marketing ourselves to be sold to represent the US and UK because we are, particularly the information technology thing going on now.

EHRLICH: Do you think that’s going to be an answer?

PERRY: No. I don’t think so. I think that Jamaica needs these things of our own. We need factories of our own. Not just people to sell other people’s stuff, but we need things of Jamaican quality.

EHRLICH: Many Jamaicans welcome the emphasis on information technology, but say it shouldn’t exclude traditional factory jobs. Otherwise there will be an even greater gap between the educated elite and the mass of poor, working class Jamaicans. Class member Patrick Roberts says since the US has set the rules for Jamaica’s economic development is also has a responsibility to follow through.

PATRICK ROBERTS: Come down in Jamaica. Enjoy the friendship and the warmness of our people. Come invest some money in here and let us have some serious investment and production in Jamaica. Don’t leave us in the cold. Come spend the US dollars and plenty of them, you know.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Kingston, Jamaica.

[Jamaican reggae music]

PORTER: Jamaica’s grass roots war on crime, next on Common Ground.

ROBERTS: They have to start to set up infrastructure, where you would learn and benefit from-training school, more youth centers, sports facilities, you know. We need some jobs, some factories.

[Jamaican reggae music]

MCHUGH: Jamaica is still a popular tourist stop, but it’s also a well-known haven for crime. It scares away foreign investors as well as some tourists.

PORTER: But over the last few years there’s been a small decrease in crime. As Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from Kingston, the decrease in crime results more from grass roots efforts than from government action.

[sound of many people talking at a public gathering]

CLASS MEMBER: We are on Clarence, Clarence Road. Right? This is where the community youth club is at.

REESE EHRLICH: Here in the Craigtown District of Jamaica, young people hang out on a street barely illuminated by a flickering overhead light. Potholes and rubble line the neighborhood’s narrow streets.

[sound of vehicle traffic]

EHRLICH: On this night 25 young men in T-shirts and baggy jeans pack into a crowded classroom at the community youth center. They begin their history class by singing the Jamaican national anthem.

[the class singing the Jamaican national anthem]: “… forever Jamaica, land we love. Jamaica! Jamaica! Jamaica, land we love.”

EHRLICH: The class frequently becomes a forum for community grievances about jobs, police brutality, and crime. Community organizer and class member Patrick Roberts says in years past murders and assaults here became so numerous people were afraid to go to sleep at night.

PATRICK ROBERTS: Most of the nights, like living in a ghetto like this, if you sleep it’s like committing suicide. Because we have to keep awake. Because we, as you see, we are a lot of families, friends, and in their sleep, and never wake.

EHRLICH: [speaking to the class] How many people here have jobs? One, two? So two part-time jobs out of a room of 24.

EHRLICH: Unemployment here in Craigtown runs over 90 percent. That’s fertile ground for the organized gangs that peddle drugs and run protection rackets. The gangs used to retaliate for attacks on their members by randomly killing residents in another gang’s area. Roberts knows Craigtown members who would set up armed roadblocks at night to stop the drive-by shootings.

ROBERTS: In jail is like night in Craigtown. We have to defend our own. Because if you don’t defend your own, then you would just be slaughtered like animals. People venture in our community and slaughtered our friends and parents on a regular basis. So we have to defend our territory, you know. Don’t ask me how we tried to defend it, but we had to.

EHRLICH: Finally, about a year ago community residents said, “Enough.” They put tremendous pressure on the gangs to stop the senseless violence. The gang leaders are politically savvy. They rely on local residents as a buffer against the police, so gang leaders decided to meet with representatives from nearby communities and negotiate peace agreements.

ROBERTS: The people were crying for it, you know. The peace process was spreading all over the place, you know. We said, “OK, if all of the rest of the communities then go full scale in our peace process, then we ask to open up our community.

EHRLICH: About a year ago the nighttime barricades came down in Craigtown; the drive-by shootings stopped; the number of homicides in high-crime Western Kingston declined from 200 in 1997 to 69 last year. That drop contributed to a slight decline in crime in Jamaica last year.

[Jamaican reggae music]

EHRLICH: While drive-by shootings have been reduced, the gangs remain a major problem, in part because they are loosely affiliated with the country’s two major political parties. In the late 1960s the center-left People’s National Party and the center-right Jamaican Labor Party both formed armed militias to maintain control of neighborhoods loyal to their cause. They killed over 800 people in a virtual civil war leading up to the 1980 national elections. Professor Brian Meeks chairs the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies.

BRIAN MEEKS: I remember in particular going during the peace of 1977 into the border area between Tivoli Gardens and Lizardtown-appropriately named-and looking at the first high rise in that enclave. And it didn’t have any front. The entire front of the concrete structure had been blown. What I saw there certainly looked like it could have been Lebanon.

EHRLICH: Professor Meeks says the situation changed drastically in the early 1980s when Jamaica moved towards free market capitalism and reduced the size of government. But the free market policies had an unintended effect.

MEEKS: In the 1970s, with state coffers being relatively full, there was some largesse available to redistribute and the state could function in the classic sense, as a patron. Machine politics dominated the scene. But by the 1980s with the swing to neoliberalism, with the decline in power of the state for economic as well as ideological reasons, the state loses its clout, its ability to distribute scarce benefits.

EHRLICH: So the militias turned to marijuana and cocaine to finance their operations. They established close ties with Jamaican gangs in New York and Florida. A Jamaican-based gang smuggled drugs to the US, the US-based gangs shipped arms back to Jamaica.

[sound of someone speaking over a public address system]

EHRLICH: Police here at the Denimtown police station say fighting the gangs is an uphill battle. Lack of resources is one problem. At this precinct windows are broken and the station’s one computer hasn’t worked for months. Detective Inspector Edsel Scott walks outside and describes the dilapidated buildings.

[sound of a closing door]

EHRLICH: [speaking to Detective Scott] How old is the station here?

EDSEL SCOTT: Some 50 years old. I think it is probably more than that.

EHRLICH: Back to the British colonial times?

SCOTT: Yeah, yeah. Definitely. Definitely. Yeah.

EHRLICH: Accused criminals stay locked up at police stations for months or even years, causing serious overcrowding. Scott says an even bigger problem than lack of resources is the gangs’ continued loose affiliation with the two political parties. The parties still sometimes use the gangs as enforcers during electoral campaigns. In return, Scott says, the gangs want get-out-of-jail-free cards when their party wins.

SCOTT: All communities are identified with political parties. They think that politically they can be assisted by their, their representatives, so I don’t think they’ll sever their ties with these people because from time to time they may just need them.

EHRLICH: Scott says police face another difficult problem. The US, Britain, and Canada have a policy of deporting Jamaican criminals back to the island after they get out of prison.

SCOTT: Their contribution to crime is very significant, I think. They have been linked to a lot of crimes.

EHRLICH: That view is contradicted, however, in a new report on Jamaican crime issued by the Police Executive Research Forum, a US-based research group. PERF says most people were deported for drug possession or entering North American cities illegally. Because relatively few people were deported for serious crimes, PERF concludes that deportees are unlikely to play a major role in Jamaican crime. Jamaican police don’t keep statistics on the number of crimes committed by deportees, so it’s difficult to know how serious the problem may actually be. Detective Inspector Edsel Scott says in any case the deported criminals may play a behind the scenes role.

SCOTT: They came here without anything. They are used to a certain lifestyle in the States or in Canada. It’s hard to put them in a different level from these local guys. And they, you know, they’ll come down here and they will do all sorts of things just to make sure that they are seen as “the person” who should run the community.

EHRLICH: Back at their Craigtown community youth center, residents say they can’t rely on the police to reduce crime. But community organizer Patrick Roberts and others do want the government to help attack the root causes of crime by providing social services and jobs.

ROBERTS: They have to start to set up infrastructure, where you would learn and benefit from-training school, more youth centers, sports facilities, you know. We need some jobs, some factories.

EHRLICH: Professor Anthony Herriot, a specialist in criminal justice at the University of the West Indies, says the government could also do more to popularize the negotiated peace between gangs.

ANTHONY HERRIOT: We need to consolidate this peace process. We need to generalize that, to move it beyond western Kingston to other parts of the city. That requires some support from government. So it will take considerable work over many years. It doesn’t need a lot of resources to do this. And this I believe is something that we, we can do.

EHRLICH: Given past experience, Craigtown residents aren’t going to wait for government action. They plan to rely on their own efforts. That’s the sentiment of a prayer students composed and recite at the end of every class.

[the class reciting the poem]: “We hope and we pray that through love and unity we can all live together as one in our community. Bless us.”

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Kingston, Jamaica.

[Jamaican reggae music]

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security