Labor

Long time no write. I created this blog last summer, 2013, to document my experience working as a journalist for the English newspaper of Nicaragua. But once I began pursuing a Master’s in the fall, I stopped writing, as my life was no longer as interesting and my daily routine rather mundane, thus my insights less informative. For the spring semester, I studied abroad in Paris, where I again neglected to write considering stories about my morning croissant, sitting around theorizing about international affairs and frustrations with Paris’ oh-so-charming citizens did not make for the most inspiring.

But now I’m back at it: interning for the UN ILO in Jakarta, Indonesia. The ILO- International Labor Organization- is a complex  UN branch with a technical mandate to address labor-related issues such as forced labor (from youth, migration, and trafficking), conditions in MNC (primarily garment) factories, working with governments to establish minimum wages (‘living’ wages, as they’re now called), and small business development, particularly for women.

It was halfway into my regular Wednesday night development economics class last October when the ILO epiphany hit me. We were discussing sustainable labor- specifically call centers in Nicaragua, on which I had previously reported. Is local employment for MNC good for development or not, and what are the alternatives? I argued nay, citing commonplace unhealthy working conditions and fleeting nature of the business. I realized that the issues on which I most liked to report in Cambodia and Nicaragua were all labor-related: conditions in garment factories, behind the scenes of call centers, youth employment, microfinance for women as a source of self assertion, women gaining access to loans and business plans through World Bank funded programs, massage as a means of employment for those blinded by landmines, beer factory workers on strike…  Yup, ILO.

It motivates me to think that slavery still exists. Burma is selling uncompensated fisherman to Thailand for free and forced labor. Domestic workers from Cambodia still travel to Malaysia in hopes they will find better work as domestic servants, oftentimes only to find they become abused and trapped after their passports are stolen by their bosses, who declare they must do their work in order to earn it back. Girls are still sold by their families into sex rings, and brothels exist the world over. It’s funny how much attention films like ’12 Years a Slave’ garnered, yet many still seem to forget that this is happening- now.

I do miss reporting. This week it really hit me that I am now on the other side of the policy system- that I am no longer writing about the programs but actually helping to design, implement and monitor them. During one meeting, a director called upon staff to write op-eds, saying it offers the ILO a chance to show its voice since  journalists write whatever they feel the story is instead of repeating the neatly packaged press kits presented at press conferences.

But I liked that. I remember writing a controversial story after attending a UN conference during which officials urged Cambodia to sign a migrant workers’ treaty. And so this is the story I wrote. But because it did not mimic the NGO lingo contained within the press kit, a UN representative fired back, saying the UN was not ‘pushing’ (as this looks bad for the organization). Whatever, I told the story.

Transitioning into policy work is certainly exciting. Although I love journalism- the learning that comes with working on so many stories, the quest for the truth and presentation of it in order to affect policy (or at least public perception), the daily diversity and engaging nature- it was time for a change. I have known for a while that this transition would come, and enjoyed reporting while I was in it. But there’s only so long one can remain objective when reporting about these issues without dirtying the hands. It’s great while you’re young and single and energetic and don’t care about money, but I also know the deadlines and time commitment and traveling are not the most conducive for the family life that I hope to have.  And while journalism abroad- immersed in these issues- is fascinating, in the US it is far less investigative with less access to the issues, and more a commercial gig.

Though very challenging, my program classes thus far have prepared me for the ILO: development economics, designing and implementing development projects, social entrepreneurship, impact evaluation, statistics, microfinance, corporate social responsibility, global hunger and trafficking.

Right now I am settling into Jakarta, moving into a new apartment and getting my bearings, but my mind is still preoccupied with this past month’s travels between when the semester ended in Paris and the internship began here. During this time, I used part of the generous grant GW awarded to visit Geneva, the French and Italian rivieras, Athens, Cyprus, Istanbul, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Abu Dhabi, Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam…..and…..

Cambodia.

As the dawn glowed upon the pink lotus waterlillies and verdant rice paddies punctuated by the occasional mountain and palm, I was the only passenger awake on the bus crossing from Saigon, carefully staring out the window as if the land lured me back and conjured all the old thoughts and feelings so incredibly familiar to my senses.

In Phnom Penh- which I left 2 years ago- I visited all of my old favorites. I went to the mass I regularly attended and the priest  who helped me along my journey, ate my favorite dishes at my old favorite restaurants (nothing since has compared to the Shop’s apple/beet/carrot/ginger juice or Nicoise salad) and enjoyed surprising the waiters I used to see daily. I walked by my old apartment,  worked out in my old gym, partied at my favorite club, shopped at my favorite clothes store and sat in my old desk at the newspaper. It was as if I had never left, and all was as it was.

Except it wasn’t. The old man who sold my morning coconut had moved, some of my old favorite bars or restaurants closed, new high rises and luxury buildings abounded, and most of my good friends gone. The air smelled of nostalgia and vivid memories whispered to me on every corner as I toured the city on motorbike, and what began as an exciting visit soon tinged with sadness. Sappy, yes. But I am a sucker for nostalgia, and hate how you can never truly go back, can never exactly replicate a feeling. Some things are gone forever, meant to be remembered only as a chapter.

My next posts will detail last month’s travels and settling into Jakarta. Stay tuned.

the ILO offices:

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