Vol. VI, Bulletin No. 1. January 4, 2001
China's Anti-Sweatshop ChallengeMaking a Case for Why the People's Republic Would Be WiseCould it be in the interest of the People's Republic of China to lead a campaign to abolish sweatshops in the developing world? Anita Chan, a China scholar, thinks so. And she said so last month at a conference hosted by the China Labor Movement Institute, the think tank and leadership training center of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions near Beijing.
To Organize a Global Campaign for Basic Worker Rights
In a lengthy presentation on Globalization and China's Workers, Dr. Chan warned that, because of competitive international pressures, China's own workers are suffering from the "race to the bottom" on labor standards. Consequently, she urged that:"China, as the largest exporter of manufactured labor intensive goods in the world, should assume a leadership role among developing countries to collectively bargain at the international level with developed countries and multinationals over a floor for their labor."To illustrate the adverse effect of globalization, she drew on a survey she carried out in five Chinese cities with a large population of "migrants" making footwear in factories owned by Korean and Taiwanese multinational corporations for export to Western corporations. She found that workers in the globalized footwear sector received lower wages than the rest of the urban labor force doing comparable work.
How to Make Official Statistics Look Good: Exclude Low-Wage Data
Even though "migrants" from the rural provinces constitute the majority of workers in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, for example, they are victimized by discrimination in various ways. They are not counted as members of the regular work force, and their wages are excluded from the averages found in China's statistical yearbooks. Hence the impression that the assembly-line workers of those two provinces are the highest paid in China, whereas Dr. Chan's study showed that they are among the lowest paid.
Low wages "do not reflect the totality of the problem," she pointed out. From her survey, she found that "migrant workers in foreign-funded enterprises worked the longest hours, on average 11 hours a day, whereas state and collective workers work only eight hours a day." In addition, workers in foreign factories are afflicted by "militaristic management control, the control over toilet-going, physical abuses, the collection of deposits [upon being hired], and horrifying industrial accidents."
The ACFTU's most important task, Dr. Chan said, "is to ensure that wages do not slide further, which will have far-reaching repercussions among workers in labor-intensive industries in the rest of the world." She challenged the ACFTU "to persuade the Chinese government, as the biggest nation in the developing world, to organize a cartel made up of industrializing developing countries to collectively bargain at the international level with the developed world and multinationals."Dr. Chan is a senior research fellow at the Australian National University's Contemporary China Center in Canberra. Her latest book on China, to be published by M.E. Sharpe, is titled China's Workers Under Assault.Transcontinental Divides, Seen from the Alps
"Bridging the Divides" will be the theme of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which late this month will once again bring together the corporate, political, and intellectual powerhouses of the global economy for a week of talks in the swank Swiss resort of Davos.
What are the "divides" that need bridging? The Forum Website specifies these: "the divide between developed and developing countries; between those who have access to IT [information technology] and benefit from the Internet revolution and those for whom the Internet is still a very distant dream; between the 'knows' and the 'know-nots'; between the countries where healthcare is a daily reality and countries where even the most basic sanitary conditions are non-existent."
The limited access to the meeting site in the Alps will thwart any Seattle-like protests to remind participants of other divides, such as the huge one between the world's powerful and its powerless. Other significant events in 2001 will enable uninvited outsiders to give voice to the voiceless. One of the most important: the Summit of the Americas April 20 to 22 in Quebec City, which will bring together 34 heads of state from North, South, and Central America and from the Caribbean (except Cuba).
Sharp divides should be apparent at that summit regarding the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), designed as basically an extension of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). For a sample of anti-FTAA mobilization, see the Website of CLAC, La Convergence des Luttes Anti-Capitalist (the Anti-Capitalist Convergence).
Transnational Production Soaring
Multinational corporations operate "a cohesive global production system" that now accounts for a quarter of the world's GDP, according to the World Investment Report 2000, issued by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). In 1999, that production system numbered some 63,000 parent firms and around 690,000 foreign affiliates, compared with 53,000 parent firms and their 450,000 foreign affiliates two years earlier.
The UNCTAD report is loaded with striking data. The foreign affiliates of the parent multinationals in 1999 employed over 40 million persons, mostly in developed countries, compared with 23 million in 1990. During that period, the total assets of those affiliates more than tripled to $17.6 trillion.
A huge growth in cross-border acquisitions of one firm by another, including the acquisition by foreign investors of privatized state-owned enterprises, has occurred since 1987. "Companies are being bought and sold across borders on an unprecedented scale," says Karl P. Sauvant, chief author of the UNCTAD report. The value of completed cross-border acquisitions rose from $100 billion in 1987 to $720 billion in 1999, far outdistancing "greenfield" investments, which add capital for new facilities.
In a preface to the report, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, writes: "Accepting a more open market in the interests of growth and development does not mean relaxing the requirements of public vigilance. On the contrary, a freer market--and particularly in the emerging global market for enterprises--calls for greater vigilance as well as stronger and better governance."
Migration and the Craving for Human Rights
What drives people by the hundreds of thousands to take perilous journeys from the developing world to the United States and Europe? In a recent interview with a New York Times reporter in Istanbul, a 37-year-old Turkish port worker named Sukru gave an answer that spoke for many fleeing their home countries.
Sukru described how he had paid $2,500 for fake transit visas and surreptitious travel from Turkey across Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Poland, only to be captured at the German border by Polish police and returned to Ukraine. There he spent a month in prison as an illegal immigrant--a "month in hell" during which was beaten and robbed of the little he owned.
Why risk so much, the reporter wondered, just to try to get to Europe? Sukru's answer:"Europe is life, humanity, everything. You feel like you are a human being in Europe. In Istanbul I feel hardly more valuable than an animal. But Europe is like a fortress."The interview appeared on Christmas Day in a long article about the sharp rise of illegal immigration into Western Europe. An estimated 500,000 persons entered the European Union illegally in 2000 and many more were turned away. The same trend, in larger numbers, affects the United States and Canada, and provokes conflicting reactions:
Neither of these policies works. Neither responds to the global realities of the 21st century. Neither satisfies the hunger for human dignity felt by countless people like Sukru, men and women who want to be treated better than animals and who want their children to be treated better than animals.
- To open up the borders of rich countries to more of the world's poor; or
- To tighten border controls to shut them out.
The United States, Canada, and Europe can extend them more hospitality and should do so. But at best only a small fraction of the rising demand expressed not only in Turkey, but in countries like China, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Haiti, can be accommodated. The basic responsibility for treating people as human beings falls on each of the home countries from which citizens will risk everything to escape. But those of us in rich countries have a responsibility too.
We must use all the power we have in our multiple global operations of trade in goods, trade in services, investment, loans, government purchases, military assistance, military intervention, bilateral development aid, membership in international institutions, and so on--to promote the human rights of people around the world. Now we talk a good talk but, compared to the need, we do damned little.
If we don't do much, much more, our fate and the fate of our children will be to turn our rich countries into mighty fortresses, our borders increasingly fenced, patrolled, and armed to turn back the increasing millions who desperately want in.
The Right to Unionize as a Civil Right
The right to join a union should be recognized by law as a basic civil right, says Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Kahlenberg proposed that change in a "New Century Idea Brief" issued last August. He explained it last month at a luncheon meeting of the Washington chapter of the Industrial Relations Research Assn.
Kahlenberg advocates amending the U.S. Civil Rights Act to guarantee the right to join a union. Two of his key arguments:
Kahlenberg points out that at present labor law reform is in a "catch-22" situation: "in order for labor law to reformed, labor must grow more influential in Congress and the executive, but in order for labor to become more powerful, the labor laws need to reformed." The stalemate can be broken, he says, by shifting the argument to a moral plane.
- Civil rights law provides better protection. Under U.S. labor law, employers almost never face serious penalties for firing pro-union workers in order to crush a labor organizing drive. Under the Civil Rights Act the employer faces stronger penalties, which include punitive damages, and the plaintiff has the right to a jury trial as a last resort.
- "The egregious practice of employers to fire people for reasons having nothing to do with job performance" needs to be recognized for what it is: a form of discrimination. Although 59% of Americans disapprove of homosexual behavior, 84% say gays should have equal rights on the job. Focusing on anti-union behavior by employers as discrimination would find similar public approval.
Would this approach work? Several in the luncheon audience last month were skeptical about the chances of amending the Civil Rights Act. Nevertheless, legislative strategies aside, the case for emphasizing the right to organize as a human right--and for condemning its violation as an unjust act of discrimination--is sound. And in fact the human rights argument is already being developed, for example, in the new Human Rights Watch report analyzing anti-union discrimination in the U.S. as a violation of international human rights standards.
Both in his Ideas brief and in an article on the same subject in The American Prospect, Kahlenberg quotes labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan as saying that an employer who doesn't take advantage of the opportunity to fire union members is, from a narrow economic point of view, irrational. Here's the full quote, from Geoghegan's book, Which Side Are You On?:"Breaking the law, i.e., firing people, is absurdly cheap. The best deal in America, in cold business terms. Like jaywalking....An employer who didn't break the law would have to be what economists call an 'irrational firm'...There's no country (outside of the Third World) where it's tougher...to organize a union."Diary: a Labrador Named Thor and His Leash
Thor, a black Labrador, became a guest in our home when his owners, our son Thuy and his wife, went away on an extended weekend. That was three months ago. Thor charmed us so much that he's still here.
At the age of 13 Thor, named after the god of thunder, is not as spry as he once was, but then neither am I. His presence has imposed a useful discipline on my life. At least four times a day we go out together for a walk that lasts 10 or 15 minutes. Longer when there's snow on the ground, because of his fondness for lapping it up.
For me each walk is more than an occasion to get some exercise. It's a time to watch the Canadian geese in their many migratory formations, to admire the sunrise and the sunset, to gaze at the stars, and to meditate on the ways of the world. A sign at a nearby public playground intrudes. It says: "County leash law enforced." The restriction makes sense for most dogs, those who haven't benefited from the kind of training Thuy gave Thor.
Tell Thor to heel and he heels, to wait and he waits. He loves the attention of strangers, and doesn't need a leash to keep him from jumping up at them. The leash law just isn't designed for dogs like him. Sorry, Thor. Such are the ways of the world. Actually, he doesn't fight the leash. He is quite understanding. More so than I am.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VI-1, January 4, 2001
Robert A. Senser, editor
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