Archive for the ‘Globalization’ Category

A Not-So-Slow Boat to China

Thursday, August 25th, 2011

While U.S. political figures are wringing their hands about lackluster job creation, transnational corporations are desperately trying to hide their dirty secret: they are expanding their payrolls — just not in the United States.

The Washington Post recently published a front-page story about the fact that fewer and fewer companies are providing a geographic breakdown of their workforce in their annual financial statements, making it more difficult to track their hiring patterns.

They can get away with this because the Securities and Exchange Commission does not require this key bit of information in the mountain of data that publicly traded companies must include in filings such as their 10-K annual reports. Many companies that had chosen to report the breakdown voluntarily in the past are now deciding that the numbers are too sensitive to publish.

As the Post points out, quite a few of the non-reporters are companies that have been lobbying heavily for a special tax break on profits that they have been holding abroad for tax dodging purposes. A corporate front group called WinAmerica is arguing that a repatriation tax holiday would lead to an employment boon in the United States, even though a similar move in 2005 had no such effect.

What the Post article did not mention is that, while companies don’t have to disclose how many of their workers are based overseas, they do have to report how much of their non-financial “long-lived” assets are located abroad. This requirement stems from segment reporting rules established by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. The information is usually buried in the notes to the company’s financial statement.

Assets are a reasonable proxy for headcount in assessing the extent to which large U.S. corporations are placing more of their bets on foreign countries such as China and India rather than the US of A.

For a quick case study of asset exporting, I took a look at the financial statements of the publicly traded companies included on the list of supporters on the WinAmerica website. I examined the domestic/foreign split for assets in 2010 and compared it to that of a decade earlier.

Take the five big tech companies on the list: Apple, Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Oracle. From 2005 to 2010 their combined foreign assets grew by 329 percent, a rate more than one-fifth faster than the increase in their domestic assets. The most remarkable increase in foreign assets occurred at Google—a more than tenfold jump to $2.3 billion. Apple’s overseas properties increased fourfold to $710 million.

At some companies the portion of total long-lived assets held abroad is soaring. At Oracle, for instance, the figure last year reached 39 percent, up from 21 percent five years earlier.

High foreign assets levels are not limited to this group of tech giants. Pfizer has 43 percent of its assets outside the United States, Hewlett-Packard 45 percent and IBM has just over half. Even more remarkable is the case of General Electric: its foreign assets total $48.6 billion — nearly three times the $17.6 billion held at home.

GE is one of the dwindling numbers of large companies that provide a geographic breakdown of their workforce. Last year 54 percent of the company’s headcount was foreign-based — up from 42 percent a decade ago. During the ten-year period, GE added 62,000 employees abroad and only 2,000 at home.

Both in terms of their investment practices and their hiring patterns, companies such as GE have to a great extent given up on the United States even as they continue to cook up new schemes for tax breaks that will supposedly spur domestic hiring.

The trend has been long in the making. As early as the 1980s, GE made it clear it viewed itself as a global company not tethered to the U.S. In fact, the CEO at the time, Jack Welch, liked to say that, ideally, factories would be built on barges that could easily be moved from one country to another in quest of the lowest wages and weakest regulation. These days companies like GE don’t even consider docking their barges in the United States.

 

Corporate America’s Paid Holiday

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

According to the old saying, insanity can be defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. But what do you call corporate executives who want the country to adopt a business tax policy that has failed miserably in the past? Crazy like a fox.

Such self-serving fiscal delusion is on full display in the current push for a “repatriation holiday.” A slew of major U.S.-based corporations are proposing that they be allowed to bring home many billions of dollars in largely untaxed overseas profits and, for a limited time, pay only a fraction of the statutory rate. According to a corporate front group called Working to Invest Now in America, or WinAmerica, this is “a common sense solution that will immediately inject up to $1 trillion into our economy and provide businesses with the security and certainty they need to help get Americans back to work.”

The group should really be called ConAmerica. The corporate titans are proposing a scheme that was tried and failed miserably only a few years ago, not to mention the fact that it would reward big business for practices that already deprive the country of huge amounts of tax revenue and countless jobs.

First, a bit of background. Although the U.S. Internal Revenue Code is designed to tax corporations on their worldwide profits, it contains a provision that allows companies to defer paying domestic taxes on overseas earnings as long as they stay with a firm’s foreign affiliates.

That may sound reasonable to some, but what corporate giants designate as overseas profits actually includes disguised domestic earnings. That’s because corporate tax dodging frequently takes the form of accounting gimmicks that shift reported earnings to subsidiaries in tax haven countries like the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.

This is done in a variety of ways. A company may transfer ownership of valuable patents and trademarks to a tax haven subsidiary, which then collects royalties from other parts of the company. Earnings stripping is a similar ploy that involves bogus interest payments. And then there’s the big daddy of multinational tax schemes: transfer pricing. This is the practice of exchanging goods and services among parts of a corporation at rates that have little relation to real costs.

The objective of all these tricks is to maximize reported income in countries that subject profits to minimum taxation—or none at all. Thanks to the deferral rule, a lot less is paid to Uncle Sam. It is estimated that transfer pricing costs the U.S. Treasury more than $28 billion a year.

Having engaged in this brazen tax dodging, corporations now want the right to bring the profits back home and get another tax break through the repatriation holiday. Their complaints about the need from relief from U.S. tax rates sound a lot like those of the proverbial murder who kills his parents and then pleads for sympathy as an orphan.

What makes the chutzpah quotient of the repatriation holiday advocates even higher is that they are promoting the idea in the face of documented evidence of its ineffectiveness. In 2004 a similar big business campaign succeeded in getting Congress to enact a repatriation holiday that brought the statutory tax rate on the returning profits down to 5.25 percent for the following year only. The plan was dressed up as the Homeland Investment Act, which was part of the American Jobs Creation Act.

The 2005 tax holiday was hailed as a success by corporate apologists for repatriating some $312 billion in profits for more than 800 large companies led by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer, Merck and Eli Lilly.

What they don’t emphasize is that the plan was a dismal failure in its stated purpose of generating jobs and investment in the United States. This should not have come as a complete surprise, since Congress allowed companies to use the repatriated profits for other purposes such as acquisitions and repayment of debt. Another factor was the old problem of the fungibility of money.

According to an analysis produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the 2005 repatriation holiday did not lead to an increase in domestic investment, domestic employment or R&D spending. The biggest impact, the report found, was an increase in stock buybacks by corporations, which was not one of the intended purposes of the legislation.

In other words, the tax holiday was a scam. Instead of stimulating job growth, it served as yet another way for large corporations to continue shrinking their contribution to the costs of running the U.S. government that serves them so well. In fact, some of the companies that benefited most from the holiday—such as Merck—carried out large-scale layoffs of U.S. workers during the time they were bringing those profits home.

Six years later, the same misleading claims are being made for repeating the practice that did so little good. What makes this especially frustrating is that it is taking place not long after Barack Obama made the issue of deferred taxes an issue in his presidential election campaign and then sought to increase taxation of foreign profits during his first year in office.  Those plans have been forgotten, and now the repatriation holiday proponents are riding high, despite estimates that the scheme would result in a loss of $78 billion in federal revenues over the next decade.

Fortunately, not everyone is being taken in by WinAmerica. Along with stalwart critics such as Citizens for Tax Justice—which calls the idea “amnesty for corporate tax dodgers”—the repatriation holiday is being attacked by newer groups such as US Uncut, whose main target is WinAmerica ringleader Apple Inc.

One of US Uncut’s slogans is “Tax Dodging. Is there an app for that?” Actually, no app is necessary as long as Congress goes on buying the tax-break snake oil of Corporate America.

The Real Cost of Obama’s Trip to India

Friday, November 5th, 2010

The rightwing media machine is up in arms about a dubious report that the cost of President Obama’s trip to India will turn out to be more than $200 million a day, for a 2,000-person entourage. The White House calls the cost figure wildly inflated.

The manufactured controversy about cost is taking attention away from what should be the main story: who is accompanying the President on the trip and what do they hope to get out of it. A big part of Obama’s entourage will be scores of top U.S. corporate executives, who are seeking Obama’s help in initiating or finalizing big deals with the Indian government and Indian corporations. Numerous other U.S. companies are not sending executives on Obama’s trip but are still hoping the visit will advance their interests in India.

Among the deals that have been reported are: the sale of ten military transport planes worth some $5 billion by Boeing and the sale of $800 million in fighter jet engines to the Indian military and $500 million in heavy duty gas turbines to India’s Reliance Energy, both by General Electric. Other dealmakers are said to include Eaton Corp., John Deere, Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson.

In other words, a President endlessly denounced by the Right as a socialist, is serving as a shill for some of the country’s largest corporations. This is far from the first time an American president has acted as salesman-in-chief for American products, and the White House makes no apologies for the trip, claiming that it will result in the creation of thousands of jobs.

The problem is that it is far from clear that landing big deals for U.S.-based corporations will result in many jobs for U.S. workers. The list of companies with executives going to India with President Obama (or that stand to benefit from the trip) include some of the most notorious practitioners of offshore outsourcing.

Take the two heaviest hitters on the trip. Boeing has made a science of shifting work from its traditional manufacturing operations around Seattle to factories around the world. It has clashed repeatedly with its unionized workers over the issue. And when it’s not sending jobs abroad, it moves them to domestic non-union plants, such as its big new operation in South Carolina.

General Electric is another unabashed offshorer. In the early 1990s about one-quarter of the company’s employees were outside the United States; at the end of last year, 56 percent of them were. What’s especially frustrating is that GE is offshoring jobs in emerging fields such as renewable energy, thus depriving many American workers of a shot at the jobs of the future.

Eaton, a diversified manufacturer of industrial products, now has 27 facilities in China with some 10,000 workers as well as four research and development centers in the country. In April, John Deere opened a manufacturing plant and parts distribution center in Russia. It already had factories in low-wage countries such as Brazil, China, Ecuador, India and Mexico. Caterpillar has eight plants in China, eight in Mexico, three in India and many more in other countries. It recently opened a logistics center in China to support what a company press release called its “growing manufacturing footprint” in that country.

Harley-Davidson is an icon of U.S. manufacturing, but it just announced plans to open a new plant in India to assemble U.S.-made motorcycle kits. It is unclear whether this will increase or decrease jobs at the company’s American plants, which have been exporting fully assembled motorcycles to the Indian market.

It’s true that these companies have to do a certain amount of production in countries such as China and India to sell to local customers, yet it is also undeniable that these firms and others seeking benefits from Obama’s trip have been reducing manufacturing operations in the United States that previously supplied goods for both domestic and foreign markets.

There is no guarantee that the jobs Obama hopes to generate with his sales trip to India will end up going to Americans. The companies whose wares he is promoting are in many cases American only in terms of where their headquarters are located. They are all too willing to destroy the livelihood of U.S. workers in their global pursuit of cheaper labor and fatter profits.

That kind of behavior costs this country much more than what the President’s delegation could ever spend on its trip to India.

Tracking Corporate Traitors

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Not too many years ago, America was up in arms about offshore outsourcing. The news media were filled with reports of the wholesale migration of both white collar and industrial jobs to low-wage havens in Asia. The mood of panic was reflected in articles such as the March 2004 Time magazine cover story Is Your Job Going Abroad?

For most people these days, the outsourcing controversy has largely been forgotten or recalled only in the context of the new NBC sitcom situated in an Indian call center.  But for the folks at the AFL-CIO, offshoring is neither a laughing matter nor a thing of the past. The labor federation and its community affiliate Working America have just released both a report and a database showing that the corporate practice of shifting jobs from the United States to cheaper foreign locales is still a burning issue for American workers and the American economy.

The report cites evidence that the use of offshoring is expanding in corporate America, though many companies have learned to be more discreet about it. The true extent of the job migration is difficult to determine, the report notes, because federal statistical agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Bureau of Economic Analysis are not set up to measure this kind of phenomenon accurately.

For those less inclined toward policy briefs and more concerned about conditions in their community, the AFL and Working America also released a new version of their Job Tracker database. It allows one to plug in a Zip code and see a Google map with pushpins indicating workplaces that have experienced job flight, as indicated by WARN Act filings, Trade Adjustment Assistance certification and other data sources. Job Tracker also shows which workplaces have been hit with health and safety violations (from the OSHA database), labor law violations (from the NLRB database) and employment discrimination violations (from the database of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs).

This is a great resource for researching bad employers, whether or not they are moving jobs offshore. The site also has a feature allowing a user to recommend a company that should be featured on Job Tracker. It would be great to see it expanded even more to cover other forms of regulatory violations as well as key data such as government contracts and subsidies.

The Job Tracker is handy for finding out how employers in specific locations export jobs, but it is also helpful to see aggregate figures for corporate behemoths. The AFL/Working America report mentions the case of IBM, whose U.S. workforce dropped from more than 40 percent of the company’s worldwide total in 2005 to just over a quarter in 2009.

IBM is far from unique. Based on figures from its 10-K SEC filings, the U.S. share of General Electric’s workforce dropped from 51 percent at the end of 2005 to 44 percent at the end of 2009. During the same period, the U.S. share at Caterpillar fell from 52 percent to 46 percent. Even at Wal-Mart, celebrated for creating American jobs (such as they are), the U.S. share declined from 72 percent to 67 percent. For many corporations it is not possible to measure the trend, given that they choose not to give a geographic breakdown of employment in their 10-K or annual report.

The tendency of large U.S.-based corporations to invest and create low-wage jobs abroad is not a new story. But the decision by such companies to expand employment overseas at the expense of U.S. jobs during a period of severe recession at home amounts to a form of economic treason. In this way, the Job Tracker is not just a database but also a corporate crime detector.

European Companies Behaving Badly

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Many American workers are irate these days about the jobs that are supposedly being taken away from them by undocumented foreign laborers. A new report from Human Rights Watch shows that the real threat to our living standards may come not from Mexican farmworkers, chambermaids or carwashers but from another group of “illegal” immigrants: European transnational corporations investing in the United States.

These companies – which include the likes of T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom, DHL Express parent Deutsche Post, French construction materials giant Saint-Gobain and Britain’s Wal-Mart rival Tesco – are illegal in the sense that they fail to comply with international labor norms when it comes to their U.S. operations.

Human Rights Watch, usually preoccupied with the mistreatment of dissidents and others in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan, has not hesitated to point out that when it comes to the workplace, the United States is far from a paradigm of respect for individual rights. In 2000 it published a report called Unfair Advantage, which showed how workers’ freedom of association is routinely violated by employers.

Its new report, titled A Strange Case, shows how this pattern of abuse is practiced not only by domestic companies used to a climate of lax labor enforcement, but also by European companies that have much friendlier relations with unions in their home countries and that claim to abide by the principles regarding labor rights included in the declarations and conventions of the International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other global bodies.

Noting that these companies “exploit the loopholes and shortcomings in U.S. labor law” to engage in union avoidance and unionbusting practices, the report states: “The European Dr. Jekyll becomes an American Mr. Hyde.” Another way of putting it is that these companies behave like proper Westerners who indulge in sex with children when traveling to Southeast Asia: they are willing to do things abroad that they would never consider at home.

The Human Rights Watch report documents intimidation tactics used, for example, by T-Mobile in response to an organizing drive led by the Communications Workers of America and by DHL Express in response to a drive launched by the American Postal Workers Union. It also shows how European companies have tried to remove unions already organized, such as the decertification effort by Saint-Gobain against the United Auto Workers at a plant in Massachusetts.  Other case studies show how companies such as Norway’s Kongsberg Automotive use tactics such as the lockout of union workers during contract negotiations that, as the report puts it, are “unheard of in Europe.”

The report points out that these European companies exploiting the lax U.S. labor rights environment are invariably ones that profess to be practitioners of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and that claim to have policies of cooperating with worker organizations throughout their operations. This, along with the fact that environmental criminals such as BP can claim to be CSR advocates, shows that the organizations that rate firms on corporate responsibility have to do a lot more than take company statements at face value.

Although the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t address it, another factor in the ability of European companies to behave badly in the United States is the unwillingness of the unions in their home countries to take aggressive action on this issue. Some of those unions have spoken out forcefully in support of their beleaguered American cousins, but that has not been enough to stop the abuses.

Yet the central problem is not CSR hypocrisy or inadequate labor solidarity, but rather the dismal condition of labor law in the United States. It would be nice if European companies decided on their own accord to treat American workers as they do employees at home, but even better would be if the federal government compelled both foreign and domestic companies to respect the collective bargaining rights of all U.S. workers.

The Risk of Green Offshoring

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

The United States may be indirectly subsidizing the movement of renewable-energy equipment production to low-wage havens such as China and India. That’s the finding of a new report just released by the Apollo Alliance and Good Jobs First. I co-authored the report in my capacity as the research director of Good Jobs First.

My responsibility was to analyze the recipients of Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credits, a component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The program, also known as 48C because of its place in the Internal Revenue Code, provides a tax credit equal to 30 percent of the value of investments in new, expanded or re-equipped facilities in the United States that produce materials used in renewable energy generation or carbon capture.

In January the Obama Administration released of list of 183 projects in 43 states that had been approved for the initial $2.3 billion round of credits. Obama’s new budget calls for expanding the program by $5 billion.

I focused on the 116 projects involving wind and solar, the two forms of renewable energy that have the most growth potential. Those projects received $1.6 billion, or 68 percent, of the total 48C credits. There are 90 unique parent companies involved (some firms have more than one project).

While the 48C projects themselves are all located in the U.S., many of the companies are also investing in wind and solar manufacturing facilities in other countries. This is not surprising, given that 25 of the 90 firms are based outside the United States, mostly in Europe and Scandinavia. They have operations in their home countries as well as other in developed economies.

What I examined, instead, was the extent to which both the U.S. and foreign 48C recipients are also expanding output in the low-wage countries we typically refer to in discussing offshoring. It turns out that a quarter of them are doing so.

Most of these are companies from places such as Germany and Spain that are leaders in the global clean-energy manufacturing market—the likes of Gamesa, Nordex, Siemens and Winergy. Thirteen foreign 48C recipients produce in China, three in India and two in Mexico. There are also six U.S.-based 48C recipients with operations in China, Mexico, Malaysia and the Philippines.

In total, the U.S. has awarded $458 million in advanced energy tax credits to 23 companies that are also investing money and creating jobs in low-wage nations.

One might argue that companies have to produce abroad in order to supply foreign markets, especially in a booming economy such as China. Yet I found that some of the 48C recipients have adopted a business model that relies heavily on low-wage production for serving global markets. Here are three examples:

Advanced Energy Industries Inc. (based in Colorado; received $1.2 million in 48C credits). In its most recent 10-K annual report, the company states: “The majority of our manufacturing is performed in Shenzhen, China, where we produce our high-volume products. The remainder of our manufacturing locations, in Fort Collins, Colorado; Hachioji, Japan; and Vancouver, Washington, perform low-volume manufacturing, service and support.”

First Solar Inc. (based in Arizona; received $16.3 million in 48C credits). In December 2009 the company announced plans for the addition of eight production lines for its solar module manufacturing operation in Kalim, Malaysia. The Malaysian operation was already more than ten times the size (in square footage) of First Solar’s original plant in Perrysburg, Ohio.

SunPower Corporation (based in California; received $10.8 million in 48C credits). Although 90 percent of SunPower’s sales come from the United States and Europe, it has been doing almost all of its manufacturing in Asia. It produces solar cells at two facilities in the Philippines and is developing a third solar cell manufacturing facility in Malaysia. Almost all of its solar cells are combined into solar panels at the company’s solar panel assembly facility in the Philippines. Other solar panels are manufactured for the company by a third-party subcontractor in China.

Given their preoccupation with offshoring, there is a significant risk that such firms will follow in the footsteps of Evergreen Solar, which is not on the 48C list but which received some $44 million in state subsidies for its plant in Devens, Massachusetts. In November 2009 the company announced that it would transfer its solar-panel assembly operations from Devens to a plant in China.

Using programs such as the Advanced Energy Manufacturing Tax Credit to try to encourage renewable-energy companies to invest in the United States is good policy. But does it make sense to include firms that have put their primary emphasis on offshoring and may be using their 48C projects as little more than fig leaves to obscure where they are putting the bulk of their money? Are U.S. taxpayers indirectly subsidizing those foreign operations?

At the very least, the Apollo Alliance/Good Jobs First report recommends, the federal government should employ a clawback mechanism so that any company that later shifts its 48C jobs offshore would have to reimburse the Treasury for the tax credit. We also need to explore other ways of making sure that workers in the United States and other developed countries are not denied a place in the clean-energy manufacturing sector of the future.

Sucked Into the Offshoring Whirlpool

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Critics of the $787 billion Recovery Act complain it is not doing enough to revive the economy, but they rarely ask why the companies that are receiving stimulus contracts and grants are not hiring more people. Now one of those recipients is facing a growing controversy over its employment practices in a case that helps explain why jobs remain in short supply.

Appliance maker Whirlpool is under fire from organized labor for its decision to shut down a 1,100-worker refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana and shift the work to a company factory in Mexico. The announcement was actually made last August, but it did not get national attention until recently, when union activists realized that Whirlpool had been given a $19.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart appliances.” The funding was part of the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion pot of money to encourage the development of the smart transmission grid.

The grant was not directed to the Evansville plant, but unions are nonetheless indignant that a company engaged in exporting jobs to a foreign low-wage location is receiving federal aid. The company made things worse for itself by warning workers not to participate in a planned protest demonstration featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union at the plant, IUE-CWA Local 808, has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the warning.

This situation shows the difficulty of using stimulus funds or other incentives to generate employment at a time when so many large corporations no longer have an interest in producing things in the United States.

Consider Whirlpool. For decades its production activities were almost entirely located in the USA. In the 1980s that began to change as the company started to focus more on overseas markets. It bought large shares in the Canadian company Inglis, Mexico’s Vitromatic and then the European appliance business of the Dutch company Philips. In 1990 Forbes wrote that Whirlpool was “going global—with a vengeance.”

If Whirlpool’s foreign expansion was meant only to meet demand in foreign markets, that would be one thing. But the company began a process of reducing its manufacturing in the United States and other developed countries while increasing it in foreign low-wage havens. One of its favorite havens was Mexico. In the late 1980s the company closed numerous U.S. plants and shifted production to Mexican maquiladora plants. In 1996 the plant in Evansville lost about 265 jobs when some refrigerator production was moved to Mexico. In 2003 Whirlpool shifted some production from its facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas to a new plant south of the border.

The latter move came a decade after a bitter dispute between the company and the workers in Fort Smith represented by the Allied Industrial Workers union. In 1989 Whirlpool unilaterally imposed concessions on members of AIW’s Local 370, prompting the union to launch a national boycott of the company. In 1991 the head of the local confronted Whirlpool executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting, calling on them to abandon their “narrow-minded, shortsighted, union-busting behavior.” The dispute was not settled until 1993.

In 2006 the Evansville and Fort Smith plants lost a total of about 1,200 jobs to Mexico.  Or, in the antiseptic terms of Whirlpool’s press release: “The company also is adjusting its workforce levels at several of its North American manufacturing facilities to optimize production levels and take advantage of its expanded manufacturing footprint.”

In other words, the current shutdown plan in Evansville is just the latest in a series of “adjustments” by which Whirlpool is ridding itself of decently paid U.S. workers and replacing them with much cheaper labor abroad. The 1,100 losing their jobs are the remnant of a Whirlpool workforce in Evansville that back in the early 1970s totaled nearly 10,000 (photo). Companywide, 26 of Whirlpool’s 37 production facilities are now located outside the United States.

It did not seem to occur to Whirlpool that there was anything unseemly about accepting federal stimulus funds at a time when it was closing a domestic plant. In fact, something similar happened seven years ago. In 2003, during a period when the downsizing of the Evansville plant was already under way, the company accepted a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy – via the Indiana Department of Commerce – to help develop a new manufacturing process for energy-efficient refrigerators produced in Evansville (source: Associated Press, February 8, 2003 via Nexis).

Until the federal government is prepared to do something serious about offshoring, it should at least refrain from giving financial assistance to firms that engage in the practice, even if the aid is going to a different part of the company—and even if it is for a laudable purpose such as promoting energy efficiency. The federal government now has a (non-public) contractor misconduct database to help it avoid giving procurement awards to bad actors. Perhaps there should also be a list of job-exporting companies which would be ineligible for federal aid until they reaffirm their commitment to domestic production.

Can the Redlining of U.S. Workers Be Stopped?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

wind turbineWe’re meant to believe that corporations make their investment decisions based on carefully considered financial and competitive considerations. Yet a recent announcement by a Chinese manufacturer of turbines for wind energy shows how political pressure can quickly change business priorities.

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announced that it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large wind farm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a long series of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reports that the group launching the $1.5 billion project—a joint venture of China’s Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equity firm U.S. Renewable Energy Group—was intending to take advantage of U.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texas wind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much bigger employment impact—2,000 to 3,000 jobs—would be felt at A-Power’s factories in China.

The ensuing uproar—with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond—got the joint venture’s attention. While not abandoning the plan to import turbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable Energy Group announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That’s good news for the job-starved American economy, but all the attention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problems concerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farms does not generate much employment—once built, they basically run themselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing the turbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric, large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic production of these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms such as Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo (Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solar components. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon—and have often received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on this sector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. For example, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily in Colorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solar manufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domestic production have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor. Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealed that it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavily subsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It would follow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, which already does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites, which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It’s also not the case that foreign firms are always worse than domestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Within the wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weaken their unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMI Industries, which fought a Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain’s Gamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania to unionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company is foreign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S. workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing the components of the economy of the future.

The Ugly Chinese?

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

When we hear about poor third world workers being exploited by a rapacious foreign corporation, we tend to assume the company is based in the United States, Europe or Japan. An article in the new issue of Bloomberg Markets magazine is the latest indication that we probably need to add China to that mental list.

Young Workers, Deadly Mines is a remarkable exposé by Simon Clark, Michael Smith and Franz Wild about child workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in central Africa. The DRC, formerly Zaire, is a mineral-rich country that suffered for more than a quarter-century under the kleptocratic Mobutu regime and then endured years of civil war that involved several neighboring countries. Some foreign companies enabled the violence by continuing to purchase gold and diamonds from militia groups.

Clark, Smith and Wild show that foreign business interests are once again profiting from the misery of the people of the DRC. The problem is concentrated in the Katanga region, which contains large deposits of copper and cobalt, two substance very much in demand on the international market. There, “freelance” miners, including young children, work crude, hand-dug mines to extract ore that is sold to middlemen, who in turn sell to nearby smelters run by Chinese companies such as Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Nickel Materials Co. (logo). The cobalt is shipped to China and is ultimately sold to companies such as Sony and Samsung for use in making cellphone batteries. The child workers, toiling in hazardous and unsanitary conditions, earn the equivalent of about $3 a day.

The article reports that more than 60 of Katanga’s 75 mineral processing plants are owned by Chinese companies and some 90 percent of the region’s mineral output is sent to China, whose fast-growing economy has an insatiable appetite for raw materials. The Bloomberg Markets article notes that Chinese extractive companies are operating in a number of other African countries aside from the DRC, such as Zambia, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

The latest Fortune Global 500 list contains 29 corporations based in China, including three with revenues in excess of $100 billion. We need to know a lot more about companies such as these and how they are behaving abroad as well as at home.

Mubadala Brings Good Things to Light?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Mubadala Development Company, an investment fund controlled by the government of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi (photo), announced Tuesday that it was forming an extensive partnership with U.S.-based industrial powerhouse General Electric. The fund, which said it intends to become one of GE’s top ten institutional investors, will collaborate with the company in areas such as commercial finance, development of clean-energy technology, aviation maintenance and oilfield services. The finance joint venture alone will involve a combined investment of $8 billion.

We’ve gotten used to wobbly U.S. financial institutions such as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch turning to sovereign wealth funds for infusions of capital. Are we now going to see major U.S. industrials do the same? GE, which is not ailing like the financials, will no doubt insist that it is not being propped up by Mubadala but is simply exploiting common areas of interest with the fund.

Even if the arrangement is not an indication of financial weakness, it is another sign that GE is abandoning its status as a U.S. company. The process has been underway for quite some time. Twenty years ago, then-CEO Jack Welch was describing GE as “boundaryless,” and he used the company’s global reach, among other things, to weaken labor unions. Welch—known as Neutron Jack because, like a neutron bomb, he eliminated workers while allowing buildings to remain standing—was also notorious for his statement that factories would ideally be built on barges so they could be readily transported to wherever labor costs were lowest.

Over the past decade, GE has made massive investments abroad, opening not only production facilities but also research & development centers in countries such as India and China. Meanwhile, it is dumping major U.S. operations such as its century-old home appliance business.

The results can be seen in the company’s financial statements. A decade ago, GE bragged in its annual report (p.39) that it “made a positive 1997 contribution of approximately $6.3 billion to the U.S. balance of trade.” The company’s 2007 report does not even mention how much it exported from the United States, while disclosing (p.99) that only 35 percent of its property, plant and equipment is now located on American soil.

So, while GE dazzles us with its “eco-imagination” ads touting its commitment to renewable energy, the company is hooking up with a tiny Middle Eastern country that is awash with petrodollars. American workers and communities, meanwhile, are left to pick up the pieces.