Zambian roses

Aftenposten's Simen Sætre was last mentioned in this blog when he moved to Denmark, and mistook it for Berlin '34. Now he and Daniel Nkalamo are onto something even more sinister: A conspiracy by those uppity Africans to make cheap products and sell them to Norwegians! The nerve! And Norwegian race traitors are falling for it!

It's not phrased exactly in those terms, however. Aftenposten does not, in fact, spell out anywhere in the article that it's wrong for poor, black people to make stuff and sell it to rich, white people - that would be racism. But they do come close to saying that it's wrong for rich, white people to buy from poor, black people, so how else to interpret it? Scene A: Labor leader Jens Stoltenberg hands out red roses to passersby on the street, a red rose being the symbol of the Labor party, the defender of workers everywhere. Scene B: People in Zambia are working hard at a rose farm, picking and cutting the very same red roses that are being used by Labor in its election campaign. They're earning low wages, conditions are tough, and many are not even fully employed. Put scene A and B together, what do you get? A horrible journalistic irony!

That's all it is, of course, ironic. And good for the Zambians. But Aftenposten wants a story, and poor Africans finding jobs and keeping their families alive isn't a story - nothing positive that happens in Africa ever is:

All people should have the same rights, regardless of skin color or religion! The local Labor leader speaks into the microphone. People flock together in the walking street in Stange. United for togetherness, security and welfare, he shouts. Then he introduces Jens Stoltenberg. People clap. The Labor leader has come to Stange to fish for voters. He's in a good mood. Talks about care for those who need it. About the fight against privatization, about work for everyone, and about togetherness and justice. When the speech is over, he walks out among people carrying roses. Chats a bit, shakes hands, and hands them a red rose. Red, genuine Labor roses. The symbol of social democracy.

But what the recipients don't know, is that the roses are produced with the help of underpaid laborers in one of the poorest countries in the world: Zambia in Africa. 14 kilometer south of Zambia's capital Lusaka lies "Esquire Rose farm". The Farm is enclosed by electric fences. On the inside works 135 people. They live in a simple fashion, in small houses right by the farm. Even by Zambian standards these houses are small. Families of four or six people live in two rooms. Some receive housing on the farm, others don't.

Those who work there, explain that they're paid 150000 Zambian kwacha - 240 NOK [$32] a month. This is below the minimum wage in Zambia, which is 323 NOK [$43], according to the administrative leader at the Zambian department of Labor, Alfred Makanta. - With today's economic situation, 240 NOK is very little. With a wage that small one can hardly cover ones needs, Makanta comments to Aftenposten. The renowned organization Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) every month calculates how mcuh it costs to feed a family of six people in a month, all expenses included. Calculations for July showed that it costed 1653 NOK [$219].

Terrible! Why, the workers at the farm must be extremely dissatisfied, and eager to get away from their underpaid jobs, so they can get one of Zambia's many minimum wage jobs instead. Surely, those electric fences are there to keep people in - why else would they suffer such conditions?

Despite the low wages, those we speak to seem grateful that they have a job at all. Official unemployment figures for Zambia are more than 70%. David Ndangu, a cheerful student who speaks good English, says he's glad to earn some money. - The physical labor has been hard. Especially the month since I arrived. But now I have some time left to study and work at the same time, Ndangu says politely. Other say they don't have much of a choice concerning jobs, and that they're simply trying to earn some money to feed their kids. Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the UN development program, more than 63.5% of the population live on less than a dollar a day.

Dreadful. And how did this travesty come to pass?

Once upon a time, the Labor roses were Norwegian. In fact, most roses in this country were Norwegian. The government had put a ban on imports in the summer season. In the winter, we imported from Holland, the capital of rose growing. Then something began that put the industry on its head. Someone realized that roses could be grown much cheaper in southern countries, where the climate was better and labor cheaper. Improved infrastructure made transport easier. In the 70's and 80's, new rose fields grew up in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Kenya, Uganda Zimbabwe. Soon they outcompeted the European and American producers. [..]

In 1996, Norway removed import tariffs on goods from the least developed countries in the world. Suddenly rose growers from Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia could compete with Norwegian gardeners. Even if the roses had to be transported all the way from Africa, they were cheaper than the Norwegian ones.

This looks more and more like a sunshine story to me. Lowered import barriers in rich, Western countries has created a whole new field of industry in some of the world's poorest countries, in the case of the Esquire Rose farm in Zambia feeding (or partly feeding) houndreds of people, who obviously prefer the hardships, dangers and low wages of rose farming over outright starvation. But this is, after all, an attack on the Labor party, so Aftenposten turns back to formula, the irony and hypocrisy of a social democratic party in a rich country buying flowers at low prices from poor, exploited Africans. The story ends:

At the campaign meeting on Stange, Jens Stoltenberg walks around with the flowers. Hands out to everyone. Chats. One person gets up of his weelchair to take a picture of him. Another says he hasn't received his welfare benefits as promised. We ask about the rose as a symbol of Labor. - It's the symbol not only for Labor, but for the entire social democratic movement, which has stood for justice and solidarity for centuries, says Stoltenberg. - It's a symbol I'm proud of. There's a lot of good symbolism in it. It is, for instance, red like the heart.

Soon all the roses have been handed out. Content voters go home with a rose each, remembering a good speech on Labor values: "togetherness and justice"

Fade to black. Never mind Stoltenberg's strange conviction that social democrats have stood for justice and solidarity for centuries - they didn't even exist as a movement before Marx, and started out as nothing more than common revolutionary socialists, hardly an origin to be proud of. (Labor itself was a member of Comintern until 1923.) Aftenposten again implies that it is somehow hypocritical of Labor to buy products from poor countries. To exploit the story to its fullest, they make one last phonecall - and this is where the story takes a tragic turn:

After Aftenposten yesterday afternoon told Labor about worker conditions in Zambia, the party will stop its use of imported roses. [..] - It would have been greatly preferable for us to use Norwegian roses, but we are forced to import because there aren't enough Norwegian roses in production. With the knowledge we now have, we have stopped our use of imported roses. We will now only hand out roses we know for sure have been made under acceptable conditions, says party secretary Martin Kolberg in Labor.

Thanks, Aftenposten, you may just have lost some poor Zambians their jobs! Let me be clear about this: It is not good that Zambia is so poor that people choose to work for low wages under possibly dangerous conditions. That unimaginable poverty is the problem, and it's a huge problem. Business and trade is the solution, and it's a really great solution. Aftenposten's reporter-activists are guilty of a fault related to the guilt attitude towards foreign aid I wrote about a few days ago - Zambian poverty, they seem to believe, is easier to tolerate when it's quiet and invisible, and intolerable only when its effects are visible in Norwegian flower shops. It's bad enough, as one often does, to fight the symptom and not the cause - what Aftenposten does is to fight the solution because it drives attention to the symptom.

I started by making a joke about the article's underlying racism. I'm implying no such thing, of course, neither conscious nor subconscious racism. I am, however, saying that, taken to its logical consequence, Aftenposten's seemingly admirable sympathy for the world's poor is in fact the exact opposite. If it is bad for the Labor party to buy Zambian roses, it is equally bad for everyone else. If we can never buy from countries with nonexistent welfare systems and few labor regulations, we can never buy from poor countries, period. If we never buy from poor countries, they'll remain poor.

This is no laughing matter - Aftenposten could do serious damage with this article if it convinces people to avoid African roses in the store - so I'm relieved to see that at least that the Christian People's Party, not easily dismissed as callous free marketeers, comes out in defense of Zambian roses.

- It is good that Labor trades with developing countries. Trade is absolutely necessary to change wage and labor conditions in developing countries over time. Foreign aid alone cannot improve conditions, says [deputy leader Knut Aril Hareide] to NTB.

Yes. Hareide has just climbed a few steps up in my esteem.

And yes, I know, I've been picking on Aftenposten lately. There's a reason. In the past, I've often turned to Dagbladet for examples of our national 70's hangover, partly because their stuff is the more ridiculous, but also because it's better written. But these examples are also easy to dismiss. "Of course Dagbladet is anti-American, they're radicals! At least Aftenposten ensures balance with a right-wing, non-tabloid point of view." My claim is that 1) Aftenposten may be roughly aligned with the Conservative party, but it's not a right-wing newspaper, and 2) Aftenposten is too bad and inaccurate to deserve its reputation as a newspaper of record. We have no newspaper of record, all we have is a broadsheet with big words, long articles and a bloated ego. It's time we hold them accountable.

Update: After a meeting with the Norwegian distributor, Labor has decided to continue to buy Zambian roses after all, though it will work with LO, the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions, to take a look at worker conditions at the Zambian rose farms. Good to see sense prevail over sensationalism.


Yeah, I think free trade is a good thing generally, though I do worry about the rapid loss of American jobs due to cheap overseas labor. Something has to be done to generate new jobs in this country.

Bjørn writes, "We have no newspaper of record, all we have is a broadsheet with big words, long articles and a bloated ego." Yes, that's a pity. There was a time when Aftenposten was conservative, but accurate, I thought. There was some substance there to justify the bloated ego. Here in the States, it is also hard to find a good paper. We have the New York Times and the Washington Post. I don't know of any others. In Norway, it really seems that there is no newspaper just now that one can admire for its journalistic excellence. I think that Denmark's Berlingske Tidende comes closest to meeting my standards, but in Norway I can find nothing that pleases me. Perhaps when there is more diversity of opinion in Norway, new papers will rise, or existing papers will change to interpret what is new in the wind. In the meantime, we'll have to keep throwing tomatoes at the bums who pretend today to be journalists in Norway.

- Gill

Gill: In terms of where to create new American jobs, the answer is still... the internet. The bubble has burst, - due to excessive enthusiasm and unrealistic planning, - but the basis for the optimism is still sound. And if there are new ways to utilize the internet, I believe Americans will still be at the forefront.

I lived in San Francisco (ok, Berzerkley, actually - the apartments in SF were way too expensive) all of year 2000, as part of an internet startup venture. As that company was beginning to hemorrhage cash in a major way, I decided to limit my billable time and take up part-time consultation work with other internet start-ups. I was amazed in the massive amount of creative ideas that had been funded by private capital (I found most of them through, by the way). It was much more varied and intense that I had ever seen in New York, where I've lived most of my life. But so many of them were way before their time and, as we now know, way "overcapitalized".

The lesson that I learned, however, is that the ideas are out there, and there is plenty of work for those who can dream up new uses for the internet. Just look at Ebay (which has become a source of regular income for countless thousands, and occasional income for millions). Look at Amazon, look at Priceline. Those are American ideas, creating more jobs and new markets. True, many of these jobs will be eventually farmed out to India and other countries, but that will only be because we are needed to move on to the next stage of development. But at each stage we have created new efficiencies, new bases for new growth. We only need to keep our confidence, our optimism, and the ability to dream up new ideas, - and the gumption to act on them.

I spent 6 months in Finland in 2002, and was quite taken by how technologically advanced and sophisticated Finland had become. But the business mentality! It was simply not there. Where was the urgency, the excitement, the confidence? And, above all, where was the drive TO MAKE MONEY?!

Simply not there. All eyes in Finland and Europe are on what American entrepreneurs do first. Europe will react, once America takes the risks and acts, motivated by the need to make the buckaroos that've been spinning this planet around for quite some time now, without any foreseeable let-up.

"Yeah, I think free trade is a good thing generally, though I do worry about the rapid loss of American jobs due to cheap overseas labor"

America is home to most of the worlds multinational firms, its a tad hypocritical to critise overseas firms for competing effectively against American firms, when your own companies are there to do the same. Ever wondered what effect MacDonald's, GM, Microsoft had on the overseas nations they ventured into in regards to job losses?

Foreign trade is all about competition, if you buy
goods/services from the best/cheapest/fastest supplier anywhere in the world, then everyone will be better off overall. Ie; a more efficient world economy, with localised regions producing whatever they have a competitive advantage in. The crux of the matter is, if you refuse to trade openly and protect your industries with tariffs and subsidies (the way the EU and USA do), than you end up with a world economy like... like we have now. Just check out America's or the EU's industrial powerhouse's (Germany) economy.

Dave Elson: I'm all for competition, and free trade. However, I think what Gill was responding to was competition from China, who've pegged their currency to the dollar, instead of letting it float on the free market, resulting in an unfair trade imbalance akin to the damage done by a tariff. Thousands of American jobs, mostly in small manufacturing, have been lost to China in this way.

While you may rail against American corporations, keep in mind that America is still a net importer... from the rest of the world. In other words, the American worker-consumer continues to finance the economies of most of the rest of the world.

"In other words, the American worker-consumer continues to finance the economies of most of the rest of the world."

Actually, it's the other way around: foreigners are financing American consumption, by selling their goods and services in exchange for mere pieces of green paper.

Although China's currency peg may hurt American exporters, a rise in the Yuan will also be bad for American consumers, and it isn't clear that the tradeoff will clearly be to the benefit of the American economy. China is the second biggest foreign financier of America's twin deficits.

Abiola: It is quite clear that the rise of the yuan will benefit the American worker-consumer, as the value derived from cheap imports has by now been eclipsed by the downside from loss of manufacturing jobs. It does not bode well for America as well as China if the American worker-consumer doesn't have the money to spend on Chinese products.

China could offset this by even more investment in the US. This still hasn't happened to the point where significant amount of jobs would be created for American worker-consumers. The change in attitude has to come from China which, like the rest of the world, continues to freeload off of the American worker-consumer.

Thanks for that insightful comment! It makes interesting reading, especially when I need a cash advance.


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Foreign Dispatches: "Exploitation" and Confused Thinking on Globalization, September 7, 2003 05:59 PM

Bjørn Stærk has a very, very good post up on the hypocrisy and muddled thinking of those who complain about the evil multinationals "exploiting" the labor of poor countries. There is a strange circularity to the complaints one hears from such people, w...

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