Vol. V, Bulletin No. 9.                                                                                   June 21, 2000 

In Violation of International Agreement It Promoted and Ratified

U.S. Tolerating Worst Forms of Child Labor

"Agricultural work is the most hazardous and grueling area of employment open to children in the United States. It is also the least protected."

Thus begins a new report, Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers, just issued by Human Rights Watch. The report exposes how commercial agriculture exploits hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who labor under oppressive conditions in fields, orchards, and packing sheds across the United States.  Specifically:

"The differential treatment of children treatment of children in agriculture as opposed to children working in other occupations is indefensible and discriminatory," the Human Rights Watch report states. That discrimination, both de jure and de facto in character, "leads directly to deprivation of other rights, most notably the right to education and the right to health and safety."

Pressure on the United States to Cure Its Myopia

What are the prospects for reform?

In June 1999, after vigorous lobbying by the United States, including U.S.business representatives, the UN's International Labor Organization adopted a Convention "Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor." Quickly ratified by the Senate, this international agreement comes into force for the United States in December 2000.

Enter Human Rights Watch with its report, a 104-page indictment. "While eager to point out abusive child labor practices in Guatemala, Brazil, Pakistan, and other developing countries, the United States is myopic when it comes to domestic abuses," the Human Rights Watch report points out. Its findings illustrate a range of child labor abuses in U.S. agriculture that violate specific provisions of the new convention: e.g., "work with dangerous machinery, equipment, and tools; work in an unhealthy environment, including exposure to hazardous substances, notably pesticides; and work for long hours, during the night, or without the possibility of returning home each day."

Thus far, the Clinton Administration has claimed that the United States is in compliance with the new convention, and that therefore no change in U.S. law will be required. Especially after the publication of the new Human Rights Watch report, however, it should have a tough time sticking to that position.

The report, which can be accessed on the Web at http://www.hrw.org/press/2000/06/farmwrk0619.htm, is worth reading in full. Key among its recommendations for changes in U.S. law: Congress should amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to protect all working children equally.  The Human Rights Watch press release contains specific suggestions on what you can do to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the United States.

'Most Potent Weapon' against Sweatshops

As late as five years ago there was no anti-sweatshop movement in the United States, but today there is one.  What has made the difference?

Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee for Worker and Human Rights, credits the large-scale involvement of religious and student groups for sparking much of the change.  In a lengthy interview published in the May 27 issue of the Jesuit weekly, America, Kernaghan said:

"The biggest nightmare for corporations comes when religious people--clergy, nuns, parishioners, congregations, and synagogues--start asking serious questions about sweatshop conditions that the corporation can't answer. One of the things that infuriated Disney, for instance, is that a congregation of sisters in California made it part of the renewal of their vows that they would each write a letter to Michael Eisner, the head of Disney....Nuns are our most potent secret weapon.  No group of people I've ever met are so dedicated and so persistent."
The involvement of students, especially through college chapters of the United Students Against Sweatshops, has also made a huge difference.  "Young people are another group the corporations don't like to deal with," Kernaghan said. "Their whole public relations machinery collapses" when anti-sweatshop activism cannot be dismissed as a selfish promotion of special interests.
The interview, titled "Fighting Against Sweatshop Abuses," provides numerous other insights into why the crusade against sweatshops is getting unprecedented attention.  The America Press Website has the full text. 
Keeping Freedom Alive in Hong Kong

In returning to Hong Kong, as I did for two days in late April, it is heartening to find that Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists have not only survived but also remain...active, very active in fact. The odds against them seemed mighty slim in early 1997, before the People's Republic of China absorbed the British colony.  And even now the future of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is far from secure.

A casual walk or ride through the city can give you an overly optimistic impression that nothing has changed. There's no sign of the People's Liberation Army. The streets bustle with life. Cell phones are everywhere. Peking Road, in the heart of the city, is still Peking Road, not Beijing Road.

Leave it to a conservative magazine, the Economist, to sound a note of realism. An editorial in he April 22 issue, which was on sale during my visit, pointed out that because of coercive pressure from Beijing on the Hong Kong government, "Hong Kong's democrats have little to cheer" about the future.  Even so, the bright side is that a good number of its citizens are cheerfully committed to two highly risky endeavors: keeping freedom alive in Hong Kong and keeping hope for democracy alive in the rest of China. Many of these men and women could have fled to safety and security in the United States or Canada before 1997. Instead, they stayed to continue dedicating themselves to the work of organizations like the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and the Asian Monitor Resources Center.

Perhaps the most remarkable of these modern heroes and heroines is Han Dongfang, co-founder of a free trade union in Beijing during the ill-fated pro-democracy movement of 1989, a veteran of 22 months in China's prisons for that "counterrevolutionary" activity.  Now, at the age of 36, he edits China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based bi-monthly published in Chinese and English, and hosts Radio Free Asia broadcasts featuring interviews he has workers who call him from all over China.

How will Han Dongfang and his pro-democracy colleagues continue to make use of the freedom they still enjoy in Hong Kong?  Thanks to the Web, you can keep up with their various initiatives.  Here are several of their links:

Puppetry in China's State Industries

More than 20,000 miners and family members in a remote town in northeastern China rioted in February this year after a state-owned mine was shut down. That was no isolated incident, according to an article headed "Mercury Rising" in the Far Eastern Economic Review. "Across the country, impoverished and demoralized state-industry workers are attacking their Communist Party managers, looting their own factories, and taking to the streets in protest," the Review reported.  Moreover, "senior police officers say they expect the unrest to worsen as lay-offs and factory sell-offs and closures continue."

The Hong Kong weekly then offered this advice:  "The short-term solution to almost all industrial unrest in China, observers note, is to disburse more cash to sidelined and laid-off workers. In the long term, the answer is to speed up development of the private sector."

I happened to read that article on a plane between Hong Kong and Bangkok. From my hotel in Bangkok I emailed the Review this letter:

"Your article on the massive problems of China's massive state-industry sector (April 27) neglects an important reality: that the state workers are treated as puppets instead of people.  It does not suffice, even as a short-term solution, just to 'disburse more cash to the sidelined and laid-off workers.' They need to know what is going on, and they need to have a voice in what's happening to them.

"That's not possible now, with the government and Party organizations controlling all the information and all the decisions. Even some economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, formerly of the World Bani, are beginning to recognize that workers need independent unions to protect their interests.

"Puppets don't mind being treated as puppets. People do. Hence it is natural for unrest to fester in the process of transforming China's state industries.  Money alone is not a cure."

Perhaps because I had chatted with Han Dongfang only a few hours earlier, writing that letter took only a few minutes. But the Review, unimpressed, did not publish it.

Eyeing Human Rights in U.S. Workplace

"Human Rights in the American Workplace" is the timely theme of a conference to be hosted by Cornell University's Institute of Workplace Studies October 20 and 21 in Rye Brook, N.Y.  Speakers from the business, union, academic, governmental, and NGO worlds will assess U.S. labor law and policy within the context of international human rights standards.

The conference's purpose is to focus this country's policy-makers on worker rights as human rights and thereby  help make human rights a more compelling influence on making and implementing U.S. labor policy.  Program and registration information can be obtained by phone (212/340-2869) or email (iwsconferences@cornell.edu).  Conference information will also be available soon on the Web at http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/iws.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-9, June 21, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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