Main Courts, Not Just Desserts

— Jane Slaughter

UNTIL RECENTLY, THE big corporations used the poor countries mostly as sources of food and raw materials; they built their main factories at home.

Luis Galicia, a staffer at the Guatemalan research institute AVANCSO, calls his country a supplier of "desserts"--bananas, coffee, sugar. But now, says Galicia, the division of labor between rich and poor countries is changing: Transnational corporations are locating more and more manufacturing in countries where wages are low.

The future promises a global division of labor between high-tech production in the United States, Japan and Europe, and low-tech, labor-intensive work in the poor countries. (Note that high-tech production in the rich countries does not mean high-wage or high-skill jobs, as the fantasy futurists would have us believe. But that's another story . . . )

In its 1994 book The Significance of the Maquila in Guatemala, AVANCSO writes, "The world economy is becoming global, but this does not mean that the lopsidedness of international economic relations is over. On the contrary, the lopsidedness is intensified . . . . The underdeveloped world is perfecting its role as a supplier to the developed countries. Now it contributes industrial products as well, but especially its people's capacity to work ....

"Labor power is one of the last comparative advantages that the Third World has, given the devaluation of raw materials in international markets, and the backwardness of the Third World's technology . . . .

"The new role of the underdeveloped countries is not simply to provide cheap labor, but rather to be functionally coupled to the transformations of capitalism and its requirements. With the growth of the maquila, the restructuring of the underdeveloped countries becomes intertwined with that of the developed countries."

ATC 61, March-April 1996

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