Vol. VII, Bulletin No. 2.                                                                        February 1,  2002 

New Spotlight on China's 'Toys of Misery'

Putting Pressure on Wal-Mart, Toys 'R' Us, and Toy Industry
For Abuses Committed against Young Working Women
"When you go into a Wal-Mart or a Toys 'R' Us to purchase a Harry Potter or Disney's Monsters Inc., Mattel's Barbie, Sesame Street, Hasbro's Star Wars or Pokemon, do you ever think of the young women in China That's the world of the young women who toil in Chinese factories producing toys for export, as described in a new report issued by the New York City-based National Labor Committee. The 40-page printed report, titled "Toys of Misery," summarizes the labor situation at 19 Chinese factories whose 50,000 workers make toys for sale, mostly in the United States. Based on interviews with workers at those 19 factories in the southern province of Guangdong, the report charges that the "shocking" labor conditions violate both the companies' own codes of labor practices and China's labor laws.

'Major U.S. Retailers Leading the Race to the Bottom'

"In the driver's seat, directing this huge toy industry are the major U.S. retailers," says Charles Kernaghan, head of the National Labor Committee. Wal-Mart, Target, Toys 'R' Us, and others "are leading the race to the bottom in the toy industry, slashing wages and benefits, paying no taxes in the developing world, ignoring health and safety standards, turning their faces away when workers are fired and blacklisted [by their contractors] when trying to exercise their rights."

Kernaghan does not call for a boycott. Instead, he demands that Mattel, Hasbro, Disney, McDonald's, and other corporations disclose the names and locations of factories they use in China and elsewhere around the world. His further message to the companies is: "Do the right thing. Do not cut and run from China. Rather, work with your contractors to clean up these factories and guarantee that China's labor laws -- including wage, hour, overtime compensation, and health and safety laws -- are strictly adhered to."

How can the companies be persuaded to "do the right thing"?  Kernaghan is counting on mounting pressure from America's consumers, especially young people, becoming "the voice of the voiceless young workers around the world who make our sporting goods and toys."

Demonstration at Toy Fair To Promote the Fair Treatment of Toy Workers

The largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere, Toy Fair 2002, will attract 2,000 manufacturers, distributors, importers, and sales agents from 30 countries to New York City this month. Sponsored by the Toy Industry Association, the Toy Fair will exhibit toy and entertainment products from February 10 to 14 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and nearby showrooms in Manhattan. Purpose of the Fair: to promote sales for this year's peak toy buying season in November and December.

On the Fair's opening day, February 10, human rights demonstrators led by Charles Kernaghan will be there too, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., outside the Convention Center at 35th Street and 11th Avenue. Cosponsors include the National Labor Committee and leaders of China Labor Watch, Communications Workers of America Locals 16 and 1180, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and the New York Labor-Religion Coalition. Purpose of the demonstration: to promote the fair treatment of the workers who will be producing those holiday toys. For more information, see the National Labor Committee Website or call the committee at 212 242 3002. 

Unions: Let's Globalize Social Justice!

"Globalizing Social Justice" is the title and theme of a joint message that the major components of the world trade union movement are bringing to the World Economic Forum in New York City and the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which opened simultaneously on January 31.

"The world cannot be neatly divided into those who are for globalization and those who are against it," the message states. "We are against the neo-liberal agenda that has imposed unbalanced globalization....How many more Argentinas have to crash and burn before world leaders and institutions stop imposing their model? And how many more Enrons have to go under, before those same leaders and institutions seriously question whether corporations are worthy of the public trust they have been given?"

A large number of union leaders are participating in both Forums, though they are still in a minority among the corporate and academic elite in the New York meeting and also among non-governmental organizations in Porto Alegre. They represent the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the allied International Trade Secretariats, the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD, the World Confederation of Labor, and the European Trade Union Confederation, as well as some key affiliates. President John Sweeney and Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka are leading the AFL-CIO delegation at the New York forum; Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson is doing the same at Porto Alegre.

The joint statement explains why they are participating: "Trade unions are part of civil society just as they are part of industry. In order to be relevant to our members, we must be willing to engage in dialogue with employers for which workers toil, just as we are ready to negotiate with them, while, at the same time, working together with others in the community. Our role is to advance and defend the interests of workers by building alliances with those who share our views, and through debate and argument, with those who do not."

In an open letter, 20 Brazilian trade union leaders expressed a dissenting view:  "The very concept of 'civil society,' which is so popular of late, erases the borders between social classes that exist in society. How, for example, is it possible to include in the category of 'civil society' both the exploited and the exploiters, the bosses and workers, the oppressors and oppressed, not to mention the churches, NGOs, government, and UN representatives?"

Economist on Coping with Antiglobalization

Jagdish Bhagwati, professor of economics at Columbia University, wrote me last month: "I enjoy reading your newsletter. It is very informative." Bhagwati, a prolific proponent of the free movement of goods, went on to call my attention to an article of his in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. In that article, "Coping with Antiglobalization," I detected a few nuances that differed somewhat from his usual hardline position. For example, although he vigorously defends globalization and multinational corporations against critics, he argues for initiatives that address "globalization's occasional downsides." Although "corporations generally do good, not harm," he adds: "Again, however, the question has to be, Can they help us to do even more good?"

Bhagwati's email emphasized the need for "appropriate governance" of globalization and for "hard work and good ideas on how to advance our social agendas."  Agreed, I said in a brief reply, written before reading the full text of his article.

Getting Bogged Down in Comparing Rival Data

I agreed because I often find myself getting tired of the current controversies about how good or how bad globalization and multinational corporations are. I just don't have the time to follow and compare the multiple arguments made by each side.

See, for example, the detailed criticism of globalization made by Jeff Gates, president of the Shared Capitalism Institute, last October in testimony to the House of Lords in London. He gives 21 examples of how the regulations of the World Trade Organization radically redistribute wealth worldwide -- "from poor to rich, from poor country to rich country, from the future to the present."  Gates is persuasive in presenting his case, I think, but I also think it fruitless to get bogged down in marshaling statistical data and in trying to measure and assess the mixture of good and evil in globalization and multinationals corporations. The argumentation can go on endlessly.

So I tend to feel sympathetic to another approach -- concentrating on ideas on how to improve globalization as a tool necessary for improving the condition of humankind, instead of getting bogged down in endless argumentation. But then how realistic is to rely on that approach alone?

In defending corporations against criticism, Bhagwati writes: "No NGO's, or government, has the wisdom or the right to lay down what corporations must do." Really?  Even before the Enron scandal erupted, that statement made no sense. Although private corporations are necessary institutions, they (like other institutions) are not perfect and not above criticism or beyond government regulation. Hence, in pursuing a positive goal like finding ways to "appropriate governance," you still have to look at how existing forms of governance operate, and make at least a tentative judgment on how they measure up to what is appropriate.

So the two approaches -- assessing the status of globalization and pursuing ways to improve it -- are complementary. For an example of articulating both approaches, see a speech that AFL-CIO President John Sweeney made January 29 at a conference on "The Moral and Human Dimensions of Work in the Global Economy" sponsored by the Catholic Bishops of Canada, the United States, and Latin America.

Diary: Talking About Things That Matter

I miss Matt Ahmann. Matt died on December 31 at the age of 70. I got to know him about 45 years ago back in Chicago, where we both worked for Catholic social action organizations. In 1961 I took off for the State Department's Foreign Service. Matt went on to become a major leader in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. As executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, he helped organize the 1963 March on Washington. He was up on the speakers' platform, near Martin Luther King, before a crowd of 200,000 people.

Matt and I became close only in recent years, after my retirement from the Foreign Service and his from service in the cause of social justice at Catholic Charities USA. Geographically, we didn't live far from each other. But he complained that he "always got lost in Northern Virginia," where I live, and my eagerness to drive to Northwest Washington, where he lived, diminished after a limousine rear-ended my Mercury a block from his home. That accident happened when Matt and I were on our way to Annapolis to visit a mutual friend, Emery Biro. Those occasional visits -- and the opportunities for conversations en route -- ended last year when Emery moved to Ohio.

Mostly, Matt and I kept in touch by phone or email. On the morning of September 11, it was Matt who phoned to tell me to turn on the TV, even before a family member did so. I exchanged ideas with him more often than with any other person except my wife. We did little reminiscing, oddly enough, or at least it seems odd now that I think about it. We shared thoughts on many current issues but also on subjects that ought to be issues.

Take the Nicene Creed, a major prayer in the Liturgy, which the priest-celebrant introduces with the words, "Let us together make our profession of faith."  For years I've felt the Nicene Creed an incomplete expression of our faith, and I was pleased that Matt agreed with me. I still have the three-year-old clipping that prompted our discussion -- a page from a prayer booklet recounting the struggle of Saint Alexander (250 to 328), Bishop of Alexandria, against the heretical teachings of one of his priests, Arius, who held that Christ was only a mediator between God and humans, certainly not the Son of God. The first Council of Nicea condemned the Arian heresy in 325, and the Church's rebuttal became the major theme of the Nicene Creed, which has survived over the centuries in substantially the same form.

I also still have the email I sent Matt explaining my "unsettling thoughts." In it, I quoted Pope John Paul II, first his insistence that "the [God-given] dignity of the human person is a transcendent value," and then the appeal that he made in his 1999 message on the World Day of Peace:

"Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, who in all parts of the world take the Gospel as the pattern of your lives: become heralds of human dignity! Faith teaches us that every person has been created in the image and likeness of God....With this in mind, how can we exclude anyone...?"
Why indeed?  One reason, I wrote Matt, may be that "in the Mass we still profess our faith in terms that address the heresies of 16 centuries ago, rather than in [Gospel] terms that matter in our time."  I went on to speculate: "Maybe in Arius' day people took for granted that 'the dignity of the human person is a transcendent value,' but in various profound ways people today certainly challenge that fundamental principle of faith."

I did not mention the heresy of racism. I didn't have to. Matt knew what I had in mind. I miss him. I could talk with him about things that matter.

Email Requesting Legal Advice on Job Issues

Dear HRFW:  I was short 8 hours on one check so they added it to this week's pay and put me in a higher tax bracket and of course more was taken out so I had 48 hours on my check. I asked them if they could write me a separate check. Is that legal to do?
Dear HRFW:  What is the longest amount of hours a day can you work without being required to take a lunch break? Need answer asap.
I am not swamped with such requests, but I receive enough of them, and on a wide variety of issues, that I now usually respond with the following form letter:
I am sending you an answer that I must give to all requests for legal advice: I am not a lawyer. And even if I were, I wouldn't be able to give you a reliable opinion, since I couldn't possibly be familiar with all the relevant laws and court decisions that apply in different places and different circumstances. In any case, many problems that arise in offices and factories are not covered by federal, state, or local law, but are left to the discretion of the employer unless they are covered by an employer-union contract. If you do not have a union in your workplace, you may still be able to get some help from a union in your community. Sorry I am unable to help.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-2, February 1, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2002
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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