"Workers of the World, Speak Up"

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The impact of the global economy on people's everyday lives dominates the conversation at conferences, summits, and chat rooms worldwide. The debate is also spilling into the streets, as protesters across Europe and America condemn the ever-widening gap between those reaping the benefits of globalism and those still struggling to survive. Poverty, many argue, is pushing too many people into low-skill, poorly paid, and exploitative jobs. But what's missing in this increasingly heated debate are the voices of some of those most immediately affected by these powerful new forces: the millions of young people now working in factories for global companies around the world.

Consider the anti-sweatshop campaign being organized on many American campuses today. Student demands for better wages and rights for factory workers are raising critical issues of fairness and the need for higher labor standards. Demonstrations last winter by thousands of factory workers in Asia underscore their mounting discontent. And there has been progress. Codes of conduct and new monitoring practices are emerging, and some global companies have both raised workers' wages and created labor practice and compliance departments.

But no one group or strategy holds all the answers to these complex issues. If the challenge is to improve the lives of factory workers in the world's poorest countries, then let's look at what can be done not just to better their immediate working conditions, but to enhance their long-term prospects as well. Why not ask factory workers themselves about their aspirations, instead of assuming the answers, which is too often the case?

Last year, a number of multinational companies, foundations—including my own—local ngos and the World Bank began to ask some of these questions when they launched the Global Alliance, a worker-assessment and development project now being carried out in footwear and clothing factories in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. It's the first time most of these young workers have had the opportunity to talk about their plans for the future, the skills they'd like to learn, or their community's needs. While the initiative is still in its early stages, thousands of workers have now been interviewed, and much has already been learned.

Up to 80% of the assembly line workers in these footwear and apparel factories are young women in their late teens and early 20s. They often have little formal education or factory work experience, and tend to be single. While wages have indeed been raised as a concern, the preliminary assessments reveal that these young women have other vital concerns as well. When workers in Thailand were asked what training they needed, over a third said they want greater knowledge about family and labor laws. Nearly 40% wanted personal "life skills" which would help them be good parents, make better financial decisions and be effective community leaders. When asked about career skills, workers expressed interest in gaining the leadership and management skills to advance in their current jobs. They also wanted training to become small business owners—so they could supplement current income, or start a new career after leaving the factory. They also saw a greater role for themselves and their employers in improving life in their community.

I've talked with many of these young women factory workers over the past few years. And while they each describe how hard it is to leave their families, they also speak about how this factory job has given them their first opportunity to earn their own income, and shape their own destinies. Instead of being forced into early marriage and child rearing like so many of their peers, these young women have life choices today that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago.

This assessment and development initiative doesn't endorse any participating company's labor practices or attempt to monitor such practices. Nor does it replace the need for or role of trade unions, or the independent monitoring of a factory's compliance with labor standards and the law. But the Global Alliance does seek to create new and sustainable ways for global companies, foundations and ngos to work together to respond to the training and education needs identified by workers as being important to their futures.

Young people today are not only our future, they are very much our present. Half the world's inhabitants are under the age of 25, and in the developing world, the majority of the population is under 20. Teenagers. Most of these young people face overwhelming challenges, from the spread of aids to ethnic violence to rising youth unemployment. Many are already parents, workers, activists and consumers in the global economy. We ignore their plight and their limitless promise at our collective peril. For the world's young people to succeed, they must learn these critical life skills and democratic values wherever they come together—including the workplace. But above all, we must listen to their voices.