Disney’s Small World: A Magical World of Development

19Mar99

Globalization and Transnational Social Movements

Introduction

Disneyland. I think that many of us have been there at some point in our lives. The wonderfully entertaining characters from our television screens come to life in front of us. Incredible rides swish us through space, seeming to defy gravity. Cotton candy, hot-dogs, soda pop, music, clothing, family entertainment…. I think that it is almost safe to say that this place has it all.

At least it has always seemed to want it all. As far back as the creation of Disney, there have been parodies concerning Disney’s desire to have it all. Al Capp, in his humorous hillbilly comic strip “Lil Abner,” commented in the early years of Disney’s attempt to do the impossible: bring cartoon characters to life. One of these characters was a homely pig, of which there was only one live one left in existence. In his desperate attempt to maximize his profits by exploiting the pig ( “Just think how inexpensive it would be to keep the pig!” says Mr. Yapp, the Walt parody, in one of the panels), Mr. Yapp did all he could to steal the pig from its owners—even if this meant tidily “disposing” of them.

So, Disney has it all, and now it wants to take itself everywhere. And by this, I am not referring to other theme parks across the globe. There doesn’t seem to be too many charming pigs out there to exploit with scraps anymore, so that wouldn’t even be feasible. What, then, can Disney do to enhance its bottom line?

It seems like the answer chosen by Disney was becoming a multi-national corporation. (It is a small world, after all). By moving abroad, Disney could be seen as promoting development and industrialization of the third world, providing jobs, providing American consumers with less costly products, and in the process, it can also increase profits.

The following section of this paper will discuss some of the effects of Disney’s production abroad.

“Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti”The title comes from a video released by the National Labor Committee titled “Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti.” (and Gives His Son a Happy Meal Toy)

A common tactic in reducing costs in today’s industrial world is moving production overseas. In times when much of the world was being developed, this made a fair amount of sense. Certain areas of the world had what could be called a “comparative advantage,” for example, in natural resources, which would make them more efficient in producing given commodities.

The “comparative advantage” of foreign countries today can be seen in terms of their policies regarding wages, environmental regulations, working conditions, and such. Pressure from corporations, and desire from the government inside the countries, lead to countries competing among each other in terms of the above mentioned policies.

Disney has taken advantage of these practices and has moved production around the globe to developing areas like Haiti, China, Vietnam, and Thailand. What is the result of such action?

Largely, it affects the bottom line.

Disney is able to contract out garment production to, say a manufacturer in Haiti. This manufacturer in Haiti, in turn, offers Disney a comparative wage of 28 cents an hour. The finished products are shipped back to the United States where they are sold to consumers for a mere $12-$30.Ewald, Shawn. Disney Union in Haiti asks For Support. Shawn@wilshire.net Wages are not the only point of competition. There may also be a given production quota which “forces” manufacturers to engage in such acts as working [forced] overtime to meet the production quotas. No extra benefits are given to the workers for this overtime work.Haiti Union Busting source: Kapab@aol.com. September 1997.

Another point of competition for these manufacturers is that they can cut costs to Disney by cutting their own costs. The easiest way to manage this is to cut down the costs of operating in their plants by subjecting workers to poor working conditions. The production factories often do not have adequate ventilation; they have poorly kept restroom facilities; workers are not given free access to these restrooms (they must request permission, and are allotted a certain time limit); workers face harassment by manufacturers; the factories are poorly lit; the majority of the workers are teenage girls.ref:1

This raises an important question: What are the workers in Haiti doing about these conditions? They could attempt to unionize, and have done so, but what does this result in?

Since the beginning of September [1997], the management at B.V.F. [a garment manufacturer in Haiti] has fired three workers who were the top officers of the union at the plant: the president, the secretary and the treasurer of the union. They have also made it clear that they intend to continue this campaign of repression and intimidation through additional firings.ref:3

Needless to say, these actions by management make it quite discouraging to anyone who wishes to form a union. The argument could follow, from the owners of the manufacturing plant, that they are preserving the interest of the workers by keeping the Disney jobs in Haiti. If there are too many regulations observed, they may [correctly] claim, Disney would likely simply move its production elsewhere and leave these people unemployed—a worse case than being exploited.

The conditions referred to above are not typical to Haiti alone. When we look at Disney production elsewhere, we find the same patterns of exploitation. In Vietnam, where workers are making Disney characters for McDonald’s happy meal toys, workers are earning as little as six cents an hour, 70 hours a week. In a report concerning this factory in Vietnam, an Urgent Action Alert reported the following:

Of the approximately 1000 employees, 90% are young women 17 to 20 years old. Overtime is mandatory: shifts of 9 to 10 hours a day, seven days a week…. Overcome by fatigue and poor ventilation in late February, 200 women fell ill, 25 collapsed and three were hospitalized of acute exposure to acetone [which causes many health problems].ref:3

Is Disney to be Blamed? Or Are the Manufacturers at Fault?

Blame is a tricky issue at times. Disney, for example, would be inclined to comment that they are doing what they could. They could point to the fact that they have written a code of conduct for manufacturers which clearly states that, “Manufacturers will respect the rights of employees to associate, organize, and bargain collectively in a lawful manner, without penalty or interference,”Disney/Haiti workers threatened published by the Campaign for Labor Rights. clr@igc.apc.org. and that manufacturers are expected to recognize that “wages are essential to meeting employees basic needs.”Haitian Organizers Confirm 150 firings by Disney Contractors. The Campaign for Labor Rights. Disney is also likely to point out that they have gone to the trouble to translate this code of conduct into French so that the Haitian population can read it, but does not question where the code is placed.

Certainly the Disney spokesperson, Chuck Champlain, feels he can continue working for Disney with a clear conscience. “The problem is,” he said, “we don’t own the factories; we are dealing with a licensee…. [Using Disney’s leverage to require that licensees to pay a living wage would be] an inappropriate use of our authority.”Mokhiber, Russell. The Ten Worst Corporations of 1996. Found at the National Labor Committee’s web site.

The Haitian manufacturers could cite the possibility that if Disney observes too much of an uprising in the factories, they would pick up and move out of the area. Thus they are doing what they need to do in order to keep the much needed labor opportunities in Haiti. Further, they would do all they could to deny allegations concerning wages and working conditions (but can’t supply evidence to support their claims).

What Did I do as an Activist?

To start with, I think it is important that I point out two characteristics of myself that I am very aware of. First, I am not much of an activist, and I never have been. Second, I am quite an individualist when it comes to work. Neither of these qualities are ones which I should necessarily be particularly proud of.

Although I am not an activist, I do make a conscious effort to make myself as aware of the workings of the world as I can. I do this by reading, taking classes, talking to friends, and, importantly, and listening.

Perhaps that is what offended me most in my experience being an activist: no one seemed to listen. In the four minutes that I was at the Thousand Oaks Mall handing out flyers, I probably offered flyers to about thirty people. Six or so took flyers, one looked it over briefly in my presence and listened to my spiel on development, at which point a mall cop came over and asked to speak to the ringleader. The others who took flyers seemed to glance over it briefly. One man simply asked what we were boycotting, and gave us a thumbs up when we said Disney.

How effective, I sarcastically thought to myself. My heart was thumping. This was more exciting than what I remembered the Disney roller coasters to be like. Did I make any sort of an impact? The old white man that I spoke to seemed shocked at the Vietnam wages I quoted him, but did it interest him enough that he would look for more information? Was my appearance presentable enough that I would strike him as a respectable source of information?

The following day, I wandered around the UCSB library and handed out flyers. I didn’t talk to too many people; most of them seemed too busy. Quite a few looked at the flyer before I gave it to them and said “Oh yeah, I’ve heard about that,” but didn’t take the flyer to look over it. One person at the rear entrance, however, trying to enjoy his cigarette on this rainy Monday, found himself, instead, with having to listen to me talk about Disney and exploitation. At first, he wouldn’t even take the flyer, but I felt at the end of the conversation, and at the point that he went to take a flyer from my hand, that maybe I had affected someone. If anything, it was a test to me of whether it meant enough to me to have a conversation about it with a stranger—and it did.

I also found it hard to pick out whom I would pick as reliable sources of information about Disney labor rights. Along with the campaign against Disney dealing with labor/human rights issues, there is also a movement calling for a boycott of Disney on the grounds of anti-family values arguments, such as Disney’s support of gay rights, and depiction of violence and sexuality in Disney productions. I found many of those sites absolutely gross, and I kept thinking “I hope so bad that no one associates me with these groups for my motivation of a Disney ‘boycott’.” Actually one of my favorite sites was the Six Degrees of Disney site, which was also a dismal site since, if it eventually all comes down to a boycott, this site shows just how difficult it is to boycott someone like Disney.

As I said before, I am unfortunately not much of a group person. I opted to create the flyers on my own in the privacy of my own room, providing everyone gave me their two cents as to what in particular they wanted to see on the flyer. We had just a couple of actual group meetings, which, for some reason, one of our group members was not invited to. For the most part, however, we more or less did individual research towards a common cause and probably got about half the amount of material we could have gotten if we had all worked together. I hate to admit it, but there seemed to be a fair degree of…insignificance, among the members of the group. My girlfriend came along with me to one of the meetings where we were watching the video Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti for a second time and said to me that it looked like we were all bored.

I don’t know. I think we did well, we meant well, but by no means did we work up to our capacity. And that is a shame to admit.

But at least I am now well informed.

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