OCTOBER 25, 2004
When I lived here, I had a job where I routinely broke the law, and
the more I did it, the happier I made my supervisors. It wasn't the
stuff of infamy--I simply worked more hours than I recorded, and my
co-workers did the same. The heads of our office told us to report
every hour we worked, but, had we actually done so, they would have
fired us. This required no official directive; everybody just knew.
Oddly enough, some reports about Abu Ghraib in my suitcase have
caused me to start thinking about this, even as I get ready to go
to a wedding.Abu Ghraib had two main phases: organized lawlessness and the
subsequent investigation. My job, which involved going to abysmal
factories and investigating their labor standards, taught me a
little about what goes on in those stages. The field, only about a
decade old, is called "social responsibility monitoring." Companies
with names we all know--Nike, Kmart, Ann Taylor, Costco, Home
Depot--would hire my company to check whether their suppliers were
running the sort of factories that might land them on a "20/20"
expos. We did inspections in the United States and around the globe,
from Syria to Saipan. The irony, of course, was that we were
looking for violations even as we were committing them ourselves.
I liked the work, actually. I especially enjoyed coming home from
trips abroad and working for a few weeks in L.A., which is a big
manufacturing town if you count its suburbs. I'd leave my apartment
in a green, well-watered part of the city and head east to yellow,
drier parts, where factories churn out mattresses, meat products,
gaskets, and trousers. These places are as close to downtown as
Santa Monica or Malibu, but the names are less famous--Vernon, City
of Industry, Gardena, El Monte, Commerce. It was pleasing to see
this side of Los Angeles. I'd come across things like a warehouse
full of bands rehearsing, or a Chinese restaurant with food I'd
never seen outside of China, or a casino owned by Larry Flynt (it's
called the Hustler, should you be in Gardena). I even grew fond of
the downtown skyline--mediocre but iconic all the same, usually
visible somewhere on the horizon.
The factories I'd visit in L.A. were in the garment business, an
industry that makes Hollywood look almost virtuous. In the
mid-'90s, Los Angeles saw not only the "Carole Little murders," a
string of shootings related to canceled sewing contracts, but also
the discovery, in nearby El Monte, of about 70 Thai garment workers
imprisoned in a barbed-wire complex and working essentially as
slaves. Not surprisingly, people in this line of work hadn't
traditionally fretted over the nuances of overtime law. Now,
several years later, they had to pretend they cared, and people
like me were coming by to check. The law- breaking at my own office
turned out to be instructive. When I'd ask a factory worker, "Do
you work off the clock to finish your quota?" it was more than just
words. After all, I, too, could answer yes.
In the end, things at work took a surprising turn: some former
employees filed suit. They'd found a useful piece of evidence, an
e-mail so careless that litigators probably fainted from rapture.
Suddenly, supervisors started approving overtime work. All
injustices should be righted so easily.
Pressure is easy to feel but hard to see, and, on the face of it, my
company broke no laws. It worked like this: Putting in overtime to
meet a deadline was essentially forbidden, but no one could finish
the work in the time allotted. Everyone quickly got the message. Of
course, when the lawsuit began, so did the covering up and the talk
of "misunderstandings." The company heads even tried to pass the
blame down to subordinates--our friends--who had supposedly taken
things too far, but everyone knew it was nonsense.
At least our company didn't hire James Schlesinger to look into
things. Schlesinger--who, in the 1970s, variously held the posts of
CIA director, energy secretary, and secretary of defense--recently
headed a panel put together by Donald Rumsfeld to look into Abu
Ghraib. It issued the report in my luggage. Schlesinger would
surely have found fault with my supervisor, who was my friend,
saying she "failed to initiate action to request additional"
overtime hours "after it became clear there were insufficient" hours
to finish the job. Company chiefs, on the other hand, would have
been faulted only for "confusing and inconsistent" policies on
overtime that could have "contribute[d] to the belief" that
off-the-clock work was "condoned."
To be fair to Schlesinger, I know inspections are tricky. Armed with
a brush that can blacken reputations, you get cautious. Also,
somebody hired you. If Wal-Mart had sent me to inspect a factory,
I'd have criticized the factory, not Wal-Mart. I'd never say that
Wal-Mart's ability to combine a stated devotion to high labor
standards with an apparent preference for the lowest bidder seemed
a bit uncanny. I'm sure I could use nicer words like
"inconsistencies" or "confusion."
Of course, though, nothing was inconsistent about my company's
policy on off- the-clock work--it just never appeared in the
handbook. Organized, unlawful behavior rarely comes from an
explicit order. There are easier ways. When Red Cross officials met
in January with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Paul Wolfowitz
to voice their concerns about abuses in U.S. detention facilities,
the response was, effectively, silence. That was policy enough.
At my company, at least, we were lucky. The little guy won. With Abu
Ghraib, corporals and privates will go to prison while Cabinet
members will keep their posts. The investigations continue, but it
is becoming clear that no one will acknowledge the essential story:
Those at the top insisted on certain results but wouldn't spell out
how to get them. Great crimes happen this way, even as those who
cause them plead ignorance. It's how the prisoner is tortured and
the king is rid of the meddlesome priest. To demand the ends while
refusing to discuss the means is, finally, to demand the means.
Unfortunately, no one says this to the boss.
By T. A. Frank