On April 6 of last year, a 17-year-old boy died working on a paper machine. It wasn’t here in Maine, but in Dongguan City, China.
Liu Pan had been working in the factory since 2006. The factory where he worked, Yiuwah Stationary Factory, hires youths as young as 13 to make paper in unsafe conditions, according to a report by China Labor Watch.
Why should we care here in Maine? Companies that set up shop in China and Indonesia are making cheap paper and dumping it on the U.S. market. The paper is being sold in the U.S. at below the cost to make it. This means paper makers in Maine are losing jobs, and more will if this continues.
How can they do this? Companies with factories in China pay wages as low as $113 per month and workers get only two days off per month. No training is provided to workers and injuries are not uncommon. Workers are exploited to keep down costs.
It’s not just workers who are paying the price for cheap paper but the environment, too. According to the Sierra Club, the Environmental Investigation Agency and the Rainforest Action Network, illegal logging is taking place in Indonesia to supply the paper mills. This creates massive deforestation, which is a major environmental problem.
These factors, combined with subsidies from the Chinese government, make it possible for these companies to export paper to the U.S. at below cost.
Three U.S. paper companies, along with the United Steelworkers Union, filed a suit with the International Trade Commission. New Page and Sappi are two of the companies that are asking the commission to investigate and act upon these unfair trade practices. If nothing happens, the Maine paper industry is in serious trouble.
I’ve seen firsthand what happens when unfair trade causes major job loss in a Maine town. I worked at the Otis mill in Jay for 25 years until it closed down last year as a result of trade. There was 207 people who worked at the Otis Mill. We were a generation paper mill. We grew up together and had the same beliefs and goals, like to be able to take care of our families in a comfortable way in a job we enjoyed and felt pride in.
It has been devastating losing our jobs. Several people have taken jobs at a much lower rate of pay, and some do not include any benefits
When you lose your job, even when it’s no cause of your own, you go through many stages, including anger, shame, disbelief, depression and anxiety. The average age of workers here is 50. Searching for a job is a lot of work, and it can be very overwhelming at our age. Insurance is a big worry with all of our people, and many have had health problems since the closure. We have had several people with heart problems, and a suicide. Every day is a new struggle for us. We miss our jobs and would love to go back a year and still be there. It just isn’t fair.
This is not just happening in paper. Unfair trade has destroyed many sectors of the economy. Right now we are moving toward a green economy that is supposed to create jobs, but those jobs are going overseas, too. A recent study by the American University School of Communication found that 80 percent of the grants from the 2009 stimulus funding for wind energy went to foreign firms.
Service sector jobs which, we are told, are the future of our economy, can also be outsourced. Jobs in computer technology, software programming and call centers can also be done elsewhere for less.
Unless we fix the failures of our trade policy, we won’t have any jobs left in Maine.
The North American Free Trade Agreement and similar trade deals didn’t live up to their promises of job creation. In fact, they did just the opposite. We have to change the way we do trade or we will never create and retain jobs.
Rep. Mike Michaud is sponsoring a bill in Congress called the TRADE Act, or the Trade Reform Accountability Development and Employment Act. It calls for a review of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, and lays out enforceable labor and environmental standards that must be in trade deals to level the playing field.
We need the TRADE Act now. I hope Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins will co-sponsor this important bill so the failed NAFTA model can be fixed and we can keep and create jobs here in Maine.
Debbie Kendall of Livermore is a former employee of the now-closed Otis Mill in Jay.