How Today's Trading System Hurts Women
The National Organization of Women "stands firmly against...any international trade policy that does not protect women workers around the world," NOW President Kim Gandy said last month. She was reflecting a position similar to one recently adopted by a sister organization, the Feminist Majority. The two organizations joined a coalition of 135 non-governmental groups last month in sending Senators a letter sharply criticizing a bill designed to expand the President's powers to regulate foreign trade.
Because of its unpopularity with voters, trade legislation traditionally does not get through Congress in even-numbered (election) years. With a strong push from a popular President, however, the Senate on May 22 passed the highly controversial Baucus/Grassley Trade Promotion Authority (or "fast track") bill by a 66-to-30 vote. Even if the bill is reconciled with a similar House bill and signed by the President, the issues it raises are far from settled. In fact, with NOW and the Feminist Majority aboard, the on-going struggle for a trading system based on human values has gained powerful allies.
Exposing How Trade Agreements Violate the Rights of Women
In their diagnosis of the present global system, NOW and the Feminist
Majority highlight the harm suffered by women under trade agreements, both
those now in force and those being negotiated. Among existing trade agreements,
they cite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by name:
The two organizations also object to other policies of current and projected trade pacts. Specifically:
In her May 8 press release, NOW President Gandy also said: "Fast track legislation consistently overlooks the rights of workers in developing countries. In the race toward economic globalization, poor women are at a particular disadvantage. NOW stands firmly against the Baucus/Grassley bill and any international trade policy that does not protect women workers around the world."
(Criticizing the Senate action, the AFL-CIO said that "fast track wins, [but] workers lose." Still, a surprisingly large minority in the Senate opposed fast track. See "Senatorial Heresy: The Democrats Rethink Free Trade" in the June 17 issue of the American Prospect.)
Meanwhile, around the world....
Suffering the Pains of Vulnerability
Greenhouse Workers in Colombia: Jobs But No Dignity
About 80,000 women tend beds of carnations and roses in the giant greenhouses near Bogota, Columbia. The women workers enable Colombia to be the second largest exporter of flowers in the world, generating $600 million in export revenue a year. In a typical day's work, a woman produces flowers that, bundled, sell in U.S. and European shops for up to $800. She gets around $2 for the day.
Low daily wages, however, are just one of her worries. As someone usually hired on a "temporary" basis, she does not enjoy the protection of Colombia's labor laws. She faces grievous health risks since some of the chemicals used in the greenhouses are carcinogens or toxins that have been restricted in the U.S. As a result, two-thirds of Colombia's flower workers suffer from problems associated with pesticide exposure, ranging from nausea to miscarriages.
This is how one flower worker depicts her working life: "I knew poverty before I worked in the flower industry. But it was in the greenhouses that I learned what fear and humiliation meant. Here we have jobs but no dignity."
The above highlights information contained on page 85 of Oxfam's report, titled "Rigged Rules and Double Standards."
Coffee and Tea Workers in Kenya: Hounded by Sexual Predators
Coffee and tea are the leading exports of Kenya, one of the most developed countries in East Africa, with $12 million worth of coffee shipped to the United States last year. Sexual abuse is rampant in both coffee and tea plantations, where women (with the help of their children on school holidays and weekends) comprise the majority of the labor force.
Women, especially the single, divorced, or widowed, are expected to submit to the sexual demands of males anywhere in the plantations -- in the fields, in offices, and at home -- and for any reason: to get lighter work, to get a job, to keep a job, to get a promotion, to get housing, to keep housing, to escape from excessive piecework quotas, or simply to satisfy a supervisor's glandular urges. According to interviews with 250 women, sexual favors account for 90% of female promotions. Because young children often accompany their mothers to work, they observe their mothers being humiliated, either by forced sex or, when she is strong enough to refuse, by verbal abuse.
Neither Kenyan law nor codes of conduct protect the women against sexual predators. Most women do not report sexual abuse to management or to trade unions, because the ranks of both have some men known to violate women when the opportunity arises. Even union staffers who are not perpetrators rarely take action against those who are.
Toy Workers in China: Paying for Their Country's Economic Progress
She often spoke of quitting and going back to her home village. But she feared she would lose the two months' pay that the toy factory held back from her -- a widespread practice of sweatshops to keep workers tied to their jobs. Less than a week before she died, she asked for a day off because of exhaustion, but was refused. Without permission, she skipped a night shift to rest, and was docked three days' pay.
So, for 12 cents an hour, Li Chunmei, 19 years old, kept working at a hectic pace -- from 8 in the morning to as late as midnight, as she had been doing for years, day after day, seven days a week, just as millions of other young "migrant" women workers do in booming Southeastern China. As a runner in the Bainan Toy Factory, Li carried the eyes, ears, and other parts of brand-name stuffed animals from one stitching area to another. "The bosses were always yelling at her to go faster," one co-worker told a reporter.
On the day before she died, she had been on her feet for nearly 16 hours. That night last November, after the lights went out in her dormitory, Li started coughing up blood. A few hours later, her co-workers found her in the bathroom, curled up on the floor, moaning, bleeding from her nose and mouth. She died before she could be taken to a hospital.
The police ruled that the cause of her death was "an illness" not related to her job. But in towns where factories frantically produce goods for export, her fate is common enough to have its own name: gualoasi. It means death due to overwork, and is usually applied to workers who collapse and die after working very long hours without a single day's rest.
The Bainan factory, where Li last toiled, was a subcontractor of Korean-owned Kaiming Industrial Ltd., where she had worked earlier. The two companies both told a reporter that Li wasn't their employee and so "not our problem." It turns out that, while working within the Bainan factory, Li was actually considered an employee of a sub-subcontractor, whose whereabouts were unknown.
The above highlights information contained in a feature article by
Philip P. Pan in the May 13 issue of the Washington
Post. The page one headline over the article was "Worked Till
They Drop"; the headline of the continuation page was "New Workers Paying
for China's Economic Shift."
Do Our Children Need Blood-Stained Toys?
"Our Children Don't Need Blood-Stained Toys" was the title of an article published in the second issue of HRFW, dated Feb. 23, 1996. It described some of the same abuses reported last month in the Washington Post article "Worked Till They Drop," summarized just above. Since 1996, in response to bad publicity, the major toy companies have adopted various codes of conduct covering their labor practices. A sign of progress? Yes, if the codes were enforced. But they are not. And most toy workers have not even heard of them.
Worker rights organizations in Hong Kong have long taken the lead in exposing the human rights abuses committed in the sweatshops on China's mainland, including the factories making stuffed animals, dolls, doll houses, and other toys for the American and European children. One of those organizations, the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, has recently updated its research by interviewing workers in 20 toy factories. The committee report, "How Hasbro, Mattel, McDonald's, and Disney Manufacture Their Toys," charges that the four companies, which share at least half of the global toy market, are systematically violating both Chinese law and their own codes of conduct.
Chinese law provides special regulations for women workers during their menstrual, pregnancy, maternity, and breast-feeding periods, but none of these is implemented to protect rank-and-file women working in the 20 toy factories. In fact, women workers themselves were almost never aware of their legal rights.
The report analyzes the industry's long transoceanic design/production/distribution chain and the squeeze it puts on factories to produce toys not only at the lowest possible labor cost but under impossibly short timetables. That system, mandated by toy company headquarters, as well as by global retailers like Wal-Mart and ToysRUs, naturally results in low wages, long hours of work (up to 16 hours a day and even overnight), and blatant disregard of safety and health hazards. By contracting out production under such terms, the toy giants promote social irresponsibility, in crass violation of legal standards and moral values.
(For more details, see Toys of Misery, a report issued in January by the National Labor Committee.)
What to do? In every possible forum -- shareholders meetings,
Congress, the press, the courts, letters to corporate leaders, street demonstrations,
consumer groups, intergovernmental organizations -- demand that ToysRUs,
Wal-Mart, Mattel, other toy corporations, and their industry associations
stop violating China's laws, codes of conduct, and basic ethical principles.
14 Hours of Work To Buy One Big Mac
The London-based Economist magazine has a "Big Mac" index to measure what a Big Mac costs in the local currencies around the world. "In the long run," the Economist explains, "countries' exchange rates should move toward rates that would equalize the prices of identical basket of goods and services. Our basket is McDonald's Big Mac, produced in 120 countries." The purpose is to get a clue on how currencies are under- or overvalued in dollars.
The Asia Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong has a Big Mac index of its own. It measures how long a cleaning person at a McDonald's Restaurant in Asia has to work to buy a Big Mac. The purpose is to get a clue on how much work at a McDonald's is valued in dollars.
Under the heading "Advanced Burgernomics," the Economist's May 18 issue ran the following letter from the Hong Kong Center summarizing the results of its index:
The Big Mac index provides an interesting take on currency valuation (Economics Focus, April 27). At the Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) we too use the Big Mac to highlight some interesting figures. Last month, we collected the prices of burgers from around the region and compared them with the wages of the people who clean McDonald's restaurants. Then we calculated how many hours an employee would need to work to buy a Big Mac.Apart from the five countries listed in the letter, here's approximately how long McDonald's cleaners need to work for a Big Mac in six other countries covered by the AMRC survey: China four hours, Malaysia 30 minutes, New Zealand 30 minutes, Philippines two hours and 20 minutes, South Korea 30 minutes, and Thailand two hours and 40 minutes. The index excludes trainees and young workers. They have to work longer to buy a Big Mac since they are paid lower rates.
In Australia, workers toiled for only about 20 minutes to earn enough to chow down. In Pakistan, however, cleaners work for over 14 hours for the same pleasure. India comes in second, where employees work for eight-and-a-half hours for one (McChicken) burger. In Sri Lanka, they need nearly six hours, and in Hong Kong, just under an hour.
Some currencies may look cheap against the dollar but for workers in much of Asia burgers look pretty expensive. -- Stephen Frost, AMRC, Hong Kong
Hence, what a U.S. dollar buys for you or me, as tourists or as business
travelers in a foreign country, doesn't give a clue to how long a local
person has to work for an equivalent amount in local currency.
New Global Eye on Global Corruption
It's called Unicorn, short for United Against Corruption, or the Global Unions Anti-Corruption Network. A joint project of the global union family, Unicorn gathers and publicizes information on corrupt international commercial practices, particularly in the area of privatization and public procurement. A forthcoming Unicorn report will deal with reforms needed in Export Credit Agencies, the government agencies that today provide generous public finance for infrastructure projects in developing countries but have resisted sanctioning companies found guilty of paying bribes.
Working together in the Network are the Trade Union Advisory Committee
to the OECD (TUAC), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
(ICFTU), and Public Services International
(PSI). Unicorn is managed by the PSI Research Unit, PSIRU.
Seeking Answers to Workers' Questions
"How much time off am I legally entitled to for lunch and for a coffee break?" It's a question that I recently received by email. Answer: Federal law does not require an employer to give breaks or meal periods, says the U.S. Department of Labor in one section of its Website. In another, it lists the laws or regulations of 18 states that do require meal periods, and mentions that only seven require rest or coffee breaks.
That's a sample of how the U.S. Department of Labor is trying to make its Website more user-friendly for ordinary workers. I find that the site is somewhat difficult to navigate, but it's more informative than it used to be.
I recently learned of other promising news from the Labor Department. At the end of April it announced the official launching a Website, www.govbenefits.gov, to "give people easy access to the information they need." Great. A Labor Department press release called it is an initiative "to make the government more citizen-centric." So I checked it out to discover what help it provides a citizen who is a worker.
To get started, you have to select the "category" of person you are. There are 15 categories in all, beginning with "a dependent" and ending with "a widow(er)/surviving dependent." In between, you have other category choices: disaster victim, parent, farmer/rancher, health professional, teacher, low-income person, disabled/injured/sick, unemployed, and so on, but there's a startling omission: no category for worker or employee. And no way to find answers to many of the questions I find raised by typical working men and women.
The press release says: "More programs will be added to the site in the future." Priority should go to the missing Labor Department programs helpful to workers.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-6, June 3, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
firstname.lastname@example.org. (Send e-mail)