The West prides itself on its devotion to classlessness, its abhorrence
of racism, its tenderness towards women, and its protection of children.
Such values and high principles appear to be suspended, however, when 
the West chooses to remain silent on the biggest victims of the Asian 
economic crisis - working-class women and children in the Third World. 

By Jeremy Seabrook

It has become a cliche to state that the economic disaster of South-East Asia is also a human disaster. But the human consequences rarely appear in the reporting of it: a ritual deference maybe, and then the people disappear in accounts of 'meltdown', 'crisis', 'catastrophe', shrinkage of GDP. Discussions of macro-economic policy take over - what should be done about the Bretton Woods institutions, how can we distance ourselves from the Asian contagion, how far can the West be protected from fallout from the debacle (the use of imagery of disease and nuclear suggests a great deal about our perception of 'their' crisis). Sometimes we hear about the fate of selected victims. We learn something of the rise in the suicide rate in Japan or Thailand. We get an indication of the sufferings of the middle class - the recently rich, those whose well-being is supposed both to superintend the creation of wealth and to contain the dissatisfactions of the poor: the heartbreak of people who must now renounce their BMWs, Rolexes and whisky; significantly, the class of people who have served as eager receptacles for Western exports during the years of the Asian 'bubble'. But that has marked the limits of our tenderness for humanity. Perhaps because they are people like us. On the effects upon the poor, silence. There is a good reason for this. For those who suffer most in the Asian crisis have three characteristics which it is embarrassing for the West even to contemplate. The most obvious feature of the disemployed and rejected is that they are non-white. Secondly, the majority are women: the garment workers, the dismissed domestic workers, the workforce in textiles, electronics and assembly-lines of manufacturing units are female; many children also must quit school to find some place in an informal economy which may make the difference between hunger and eating. Thirdly, those most acutely affected are working class: most of the middle class have some savings, certainly enough to cushion them against destitution, to preserve them from having to come to terms with life on the pavements of the city streets. Three awkward questions would arise if we were to take seriously the humanity of those who are plunged into hunger and insufficiency by the falterings of the economy. For the West prides itself upon its devotion to classlessness, its abhorrence of racism, its tenderness towards women, and its protection of children. At home, that is. Such values and high principles are suspended for the unpersons of the Third World, the invisibles of economic disaster, the wreckage of humanity on the margins of globalisation. Yet 'our' system - to which no alternative was long ago announced by Thatcher and Reagan, and re-affirmed by Blair and Clinton - has been exported to embrace a whole planet, with an almost total disregard for the conditons, values and cultures of all the countries which have been coerced into its merciless logic. That the victims of globalisation are everywhere working-class non-white women is more than an embarrassment for those who never cease to affirm their commitment to equal opportunity and all the other fine adornments of our civilisation, which, it turns out, and unlike our economic prescriptions, are not for export. It is 'our' economy when it comes to inward investment, job- and wealth-creation; but when it is a question of loss of jobs, poverty, reduction in wages, worsening conditions, it becomes the fault of a global market against whose dictates we are powerless, which is the arbiter and majestic court of last appeal of our destiny. Even more reason why a tactful silence should be observed over the fate of the poor. We should not expect to hear about the lives of women working in the garments factories of Dhaka, for as little as 60 US cents for a 12- or 14-hour day, living on the edge of subsistence, and now thrown out of work by floods, sickness and homelessness; where, if the workers organise, management can dismiss 500 people and engage a fresh workforce within two days. There is no publicity for Lek, or any of those impoverished by transforming losses of private banks and institutions into public debt in Thailand; Lek, who gets out of a slum in Klong Toey to stand on an illuminated podium in a sex bar, from where customers will take her and spend more on a single night at a hotel than it costs to feed her family of seven for a month. Nor should we expect to gain much understanding of the life of Suyati, making garments for export in a factory in Jakarta; deserted by her husband, she has sent her three children back to the village in West Java to her parents, while she shares a room, three metres by three, with two other women for $20-25 a month, and now eating one meal a day because the cost of basic necessities has risen beyond the reach of their wages. We do not hear about the other side of the economic disaster that has cut the price of 'amphetamines' (actually a mixture of heroin and amphetamines), dealing in which has become the major economic activity in the jobless slums of Bangkok. There is another reason for the lack of interest by the people of the West, now permitted the luxury of market-driven news, or only what they want to hear. For the people swallowed up in silence are the link, the illumination, of the relationship between rich and poor in the world. This is why we shall hear even less about Wati in Jakarta, sacked from her work for trying to organise the workers in a shirt factory, sub-contractors to Marks and Spencer. Nor of Rehna Begum, jailed with 19 other workers - all union activists - for stealing material from an exporting company, material which was later proved to have been taken by management in order to get them out of the way; or the women burnt alive in factories where they are locked in to make dolls for the Western market, or quilted jackets for the exotic rigours of a Canadian or Russian winter. This is why the fate of Akash in Dhaka does not concern us, even though his chance of employment in a garment factory was destroyed by the threat of the so-called Harkin Bill in the US Congress, which committed the USA to boycott of products made by child labour. Akash, 12, is now a sex worker in the cinemas and on the streets of Dhaka. In the cinema he sucks and masturbates in the stalls, but in the toilets he is regularly penetrated, for 50 taka a time (about 70 pence). But at least our garments are not tainted by his labour. By ignoring the consequences of our own often brutal intervention in the lives of the poor - whether Western financial institutions ordering cuts in government spending, reduction in welfare, nutrition and education, or whether legislators virtuously condemning child-labour while children themselves are condemned to an even worse destiny, or whether consumers in the supermarkets consulting designer labels that betray nothing of the conditions in which they were made - we can rest in the politics of fantasy; believing that we are champions of democracy, human rights; even though our lives are enmeshed at every turn with exploitation, impoverishment and institutionalised discrimination. Indeed, it seems that as the world becomes more 'interdependent', we want to know less about those people upon whose labour and livelihood our fragile well-being depends. The successful isolation of producers from consumers has been the greatest triumph of globalisation; so that sovereign consumers in their sovereign countries may exercise their sovereign freedoms of choice in the hypermarkets of the world, untroubled by the pain and anguish that cling invisibly and odourlessly to every item on display; the pain of non-white working-class women; those of so little account, those whose lives do not register in global markets except as an abstraction called 'labour costs', which account for as little as 5 or 7% of the cost of the garments we buy. This is where those in the West who refuse 'guilt-trips' over their well-earned rewards should argue their case; with the abused and humiliated young women of Jakarta, Bangkok and Dhaka, the victims of an injustice to which there is no remedy, as globalisation proceeds on its fateful course, no longer amenable, it seems, to control, or indeed to the influence of human agency at all. - Third World Network Features About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London. 1813/98