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Forgotten workers: How the global recession is affecting the world’s poorest

By: Naomi Goldsmith-Dixon Posted: August-08-2010 in
Photo Credit - Naomi Goldsmith Dixon - Click for more photos
Naomi Goldsmith-Dixon

As the grip of global recession tightens, even the most frivolous are starting to find ways to cut back. Whether it is putting off buying that new car or digging out last years sweater, every penny saved can help. As we buy less and spend little what is happening to the industries and manufacturers from whom we get our goods? What is happening to their employees?

Even through years of economic growth, industries looked abroad to find cheaper labour. Outsourcing is nothing new, companies have always tried to find ways to lower their overheads while maximising production and frequently look towards developing nations to do this.

Look at the label in any item of clothing or on the box of your new coffee machine and you’ll see the same places over and over again, China, The Philippines, Cambodia. But how does our attitude and acceptance of ‘cheap labour’ effect the lives of people in these countries and what will happen to the already desperately poor , now we ourselves can no longer afford to buy goods.

In the last few years more and more of those living in poorer nations have packed up their lives on the land and moved to the cities looking for more reliable sources of income in order to feed their families. Many of those have ended up in the poorly lit, cramped conditions of the workshops used to churn out items at low costs. But what are the lives like of those who work in them? A quick look at the UN Development Project website should cast some light:- a huge 33% of Cambodians are undernourished, 41% earn less than $1 a day and 81% less than $2. 28% of children in The Philippines are underweight and 48% in Bangladesh. These are just a few of the figures shown.

It’s easy to read statistics such as these and shake our heads, but how does this look in reality? A brief walk around the streets of Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh and one can’t fail to be moved by the sight of scrawny children begging for food, women walking with babes in arms, unwashed, rags for clothes, unable to feed their infants from sagging breasts empty of milk, these are just a few sights common to daily life in Cambodia.

A few miles out of the city, the reality of poverty takes over. At a place known to locals as ‘Rubbish Mountain’ over one thousand families wade barefoot through the waste of others looking for paper, plastic and bits of old clothes that can be recycled. Children as young as two carry plastic bags of trash, hoping to exchange it for a few cents for food. With the average daily wage for those on the dump at less than 50cents a day, none can afford proper housing and many live on tarpaulins on top of the rubbish. With clean water scarce and medical supplies few and far between it’s not hard to see why the average life expectancy for Cambodians falls below 58 years.

And so what happens now to these people, as the industries fall and the factories close their doors, what will become of the worlds forgotten workers? Unable to pay the rent or feed their children many women may be forced to turn to prostitution, crime rates may rise and hundreds more will be forced to beg on already crowded streets just to find enough for a meal. So, as the length of the dole queues grow in the west and we put away our credit cards, perhaps we can spare a thought for those who even through times of wealth have slaved and struggled with little reward.

Naomi Goldsmith-Dixon is a freelance photojournalist based in Vietnam- click her name to find out more about Naomi

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