Vol. V, Bulletin No. 15.                                                                        December 6, 2000

48 Workers (10 of them Children) Die in Bangladesh Garment Factory

Globalization Claims More Victims

Some were burned to death. Some jumped from the roof of the four-story building and were impaled on the top of iron railings surrounding the factory. Others died from smoke inhalation or were crushed to death in the stampede to escape down a single narrow stairwell.

The death toll last month stood at 48, 10 of them children as young as 10, as a result of the a four-hour fire that engulfed a garment factory in an export processing zone near Dhaka, Bangladesh. About 600 workers, most of them young women under 25, were working overtime when flames broke out on the top floor of the Chowdhury Knitwear and Garment factory.  It took firemen an hour to break down a locked door and factory gate to free most of the trapped workers.

From her hospital bed, Aziza, 22, one of 100 workers injured in the fire, told a reporter: "The security guard couldn't find the keys."  For $8 a month, Aziza usually works from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m, but was scheduled to work to 10 p.m.on the tragic Saturday evening of November 25.

Who Should Be Held Accountable For These Tragedies?

The fire is believed to have started by a short circuit in the ironing department, which was cluttered with bundles of fabric and over 800 cartons of garments being prepared for shipment to the United Kingdom.  Dhaka's Daily Star, in a December 1 editorial titled "Punish the Callous Garment Industry Owners," blamed the owners for laxity.  It also pointed out that since the export garment industry, liberally subsidized by the government, is highly profitable, "why should not a part of their earnings go to improve the working conditions of the employees?"

Bangladesh's trade unions angrily condemned the factory's owner for wholesale violations of labor law, including paying workers below the legal minimum wage, employing girls and boys under 14, and keeping the factory doors locked.  But many others share the blame.  "Also at fault," says Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation, "are international buyers and retailers who profit from these sweatshop conditions."

Police said that nearly 200 workers had died and over 1,000 injured in garment factories in Bangladesh over the last two years. How much longer will Bangladesh's workers be offered up as sacrificial lambs to greedy globalization?

Rhetoric vs. Action on Sweatshop Perils

Should the protection of occupational health and safety have the international status of a core worker right?  In HRFW's lead article last month, I publicized a proposal to do just that. Specifically, the proposal would add workplace health and safety to the "Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work" adopted by the International Labor Organization at its 1998 conference.

Originally, I planned to have my article close with my own comments on the proposal.  But the article was already longish, and, besides, I hadn't quite sorted out my own thinking about the idea. Here are my thoughts, partially sorted out, starting with a recognition of two important realities:

It is indeed urgent to resolve the contradiction between those two realities. The proposal to proclaim health and safety a fundamental right at work arises from a first-hand understanding of that urgency. But how well does the proposal serve that purpose?  Inadequately, I am afraid.

Fiddling With Principles While Factories Burn

The ILO's 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Rights grew out of at least four years of discussions and negotiations among the ILO's employer, worker, and government delegates. To reopen the Declaration to add another core right would require a tough, prolonged effort to achieve a consensus across a wide spectrum of views.  Meanwhile, workplace tragedies continue, the most recent victims being at least 48 garment workers, mostly women, some of them children, killed in an export garment factory (see preceding article).

The world has never before seen such a proliferation of principles in codes of conduct, compacts, and other pronouncements on worker rights. Fine. But now it's time for a proliferation of people dedicated to fighting against sweatshops in vigorous campaigns, particularly by exposing guilty companies by name.

The work of activists like Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee and Jeff Ballinger of Press for Change must get the highest possible priority. It needs to expand a thousand fold. As it is, codes and the like--formulating them, holding conferences about them--often become substitutes for action, rhetoric to lull the public into thinking that progress is being made, even as the millions of women, men, and children toiling in sweatshops remain in daily peril of dying.

Mapping Paths for Progress in Worker Rights

Before last month's Presidential election, whoever paid attention to the Electoral College?  Before last year's demonstrations in the streets of Seattle, whoever knew anything about the World Trade Organization?

Institutions as such are boring.  Domestic institutions are, certainly; those in the global economy doubly so. Scholars who take the trouble to study the work of these unexciting entities perform a valuable public service. That's why George Tsogas deserves credit for researching and writing the new book, "Labor Regulation in a Global Economy" (M.E.Sharpe, publishers)  It is highly useful guide to the many institutions that, actually or potentially, establish and enforce international labor standards.

Four Trade Routes To Potential Progress

Tsogas, a senior lecturer at a UK business school in something called human resource management, makes very clear where he stands. At the end of an introductory chapter summarizing opposing positions on international labor standards, he writes: "Workers' rights are not a luxury."  From there, after an overview of the UN's International Labor Organization and its crucial work in setting international labor standards, he examines in detail how those standards apply, or could apply, at four different levels of international trade relationships:

"There is now a sustained and broadly based grass-roots movement that supports labor standards in trade," Tsogas writes. "It is not anymore an issue confined to trade union or intellectual circles."

The movement has become innovative enough to use some channels that have escaped Tsogas' careful research. One with great potential is that of socially responsible investment, not only by individuals but also by institutional investors, including those in coalitions such as the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.  Another channel, little used, is the American court system, where groups such as the Center for Constitutional Rights and the International Labor Rights Fund have initiated civil suits involving human rights violations committed outside U.S. territory by corporations with a U.S. presence.

For his analysis Tsogas relies mostly on the institutional structures of international trade to categorize worker rights initiatives. But in recent years international investment, expanding at a rate faster than trade, has created new institutions which have repercussions, acknowledged or unacknowledged, on the rights of human beings, including workers. This development opens up opportunities for creative initiatives directly with multinational corporations.

A Non-Trade Route: Global Union Agreements Directly With Multinationals

A leading example is the global agreement that the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers Unions (ICEM) signed last July with the Freudenberg Group, the German manufacturing conglomerate. The agreement doesn't supplant Freudenberg's relations with local bargaining units and national unions, but is a framework that commits the corporation to respect the right to unionize and other core labor rights of its 30,000 employees in 41 countries.  As the Financial Times pointed out, the agreement is significant "because, unlike multinational codes of conduct, it ties the company to specific International Labor Organization conventions and is fully verifiable by ICEM."

Praise came from a U.S. industry journal, Rubber and Plastics News: "Give Freudenberg Group credit for demonstrating a social conscience...[and] even more credit for being smart."  The ICEM, a global federation uniting 20 million workers in 114 countries, is planning to sign similar global agreements with major global corporations headquartered in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and several other European countries. 

A Dissenting Voice in Labor's Ranks

Taking Aim at the World Trade Organization

Despite their active participation in the mass demonstration at Seattle a year ago, and smaller protest events since then, union leaders are not campaigning to shut down the World Trade Organization and its two sister organizations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead, a global network of unions is working to reform those three institutions, and making some (slow) headway with two of them, the World Bank and the IMF.

Some solitary souls within the labor movement, however, think this is a bad mistake. They maintain that the reform strategy legitimizes and revitalizes organizations that should die, and the sooner the better for working people in both developed and developing countries.

One of the most articulate exponents of this position is Gerard Greenfield, currently a visiting researcher with the Canadian Auto Workers, who most recently was the education program organizer for the International Union of Food Workers' Associations in East/Southeast Asia. Long a critic of globalization, he aims his sharp analytical tools particularly at the WTO in a lengthy new paper published on a Canadian Website called WTOAction, as part of a series in its section on research.

Greenfield challenges two basic ideas about the WTO and other free trade arrangements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA):

To bolster his argument that the "freedom [of corporations] is what defines globalization," Greenfield quotes Percy Barnevik, president of the ABB Industrial Group, one of the world's largest multinational enterprises:
"I would define globalization as the freedom for my group of companies to invest where it wants when it wants, to produce what it wants, to buy and sell where it wants, and support the fewest restrictions possible coming from labor laws and social conventions."
Rolling Back Progress Made In Historic Struggles

"Getting rid of these restrictions," Greenfield comments, "has meant redefining domestic regulations in ways that protect the interests of TNCs while placing new restrictions on the ability of governments to regulate them."  He cites data from the UN World Investment Report 2000: Of the 1,038 changes that governments made worldwide in their foreign investment laws, "94% increased the freedom of foreign investment and reduced government regulation." Moreover, the rulings of NAFTA and the WTO are "rolling back social and environmental legislation...[and] rolling back the past victories of labor and social movements."

As a result of Seattle, other protests, and increasingly negative public opinion about globalization, the WTO is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy, Greenfield says. "Those unions, NGOs, and social coalitions which want to reform agencies like the WTO...are helping the WTO out of its crisis of legitimacy...when the very thing we should be doing is deepening the crisis."  He advocates a massive action and education campaign to abolish the WTO, subordinate multinational corporations to democratic controls, and reverse the tide of globalization.

Impossible?  He quotes an editorial in the September 23 issue of the Economist magazine: "The protesters...are right that the tide of 'globalization,' powerful as the engines driving it may be, can be turned back," a fact that, according to the Economist, "makes the protesters--and, crucially, the strand of popular opinion that sympathizes with them--so terribly dangerous."  Greenfield titles his paper "The Success of Being Dangerous: Resisting Free Trade & Investment Regimes."

Passage to Beijing

Public Services International (PSI), the world trade union federation that unites 20 million women and men in a variety of public service jobs in over 140 countries, is planning to send a high-level delegation to the People's Republic of China in early 2001, probably in the first part of April. The PSI executive board reached that decision at its November meeting in Panama.  "The impending membership of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) makes the move especially timely," a PSI bulletin said last month.

William Lucy, a member of the AFL-CIO executive council and secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, is expected to head the PSI delegation.  Although the agenda is still being worked out, a commonality of interest between the PSI and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) was suggested in an October PSI bulletin item, headlined "China To Lose 10 Million Public Sector Jobs":

Some ACFTU officials are known to be deeply concerned about the impact that the WTO's "restructuring" requirements will have on China's labor force. Early this month the China Labor Movement Institute, the ACFTU's think tank and leadership training center near Beijing, hosted a conference on "the WTO and the Chinese Workers," attended not only by ACFTU leaders and government people but also by academics from within and outside of China.

Diary: Internet Frustrations

Yes, the Internet is a blessing, and I don't know how I ever lived without it. But in my little one-man shop it can drive me up the wall at times.

I've learned to accept the overload that I find in my mailbox each morning. It's not too much of a problem to delete messages with subjects like "60 Million Email Addresses!" and "How To Earn $100,000 Working at Home."  After all, I have to toss out, unread, the junk mail that arrives in my U.S. postal mailbox each day.

What unnerves me, though, is that sometimes my legitimate mail, incoming and outgoing, goes astray. Most worrisome of all, the Net sometimes rejects all or part of mail sent to multiple addressees, and I have yet to learn how to correct the problem. Computer software grows more and more "advanced," i.e., unnecessarily complicated--and much too trouble-prone--for a simple operation like mine. Grrrrrr.  Time for a rebellion by the "little people" against the IT giants.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-15, December 6, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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