Vol. VII, Bulletin No. 7.                                                                            July 6,  2002 

Remembering the Cause of China's Workers

Workers Remember! is the name of a new campaign to ensure that the cause of the workers who died in China's 1989 pro-democracy movement will not be forgotten. The campaign is organized by three labor groups in Hong Kong, China, with the help of unions around the world.

The campaign's most visible expression, a new Website at www.workersremember.org, keeps alive the memory of the 1989 struggle and the hopes of the brave men and women still struggling for independent trade unionism in China. At least 41 trade unionist and worker rights activists are currently held in the Beijing government's various "detention" facilities. Many of them have been imprisoned since 1989.

Among the past and present pro-democracy activities described on the Website:

The three Hong Kong organizations organizing the campaign, the China Labor Bulletin, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the International Trade Union Movement, are part of a network of civil society groups active in Hong Kong, even five years after its absorption into the People's Republic of China.
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Forgetting the Cause of China's Workers

Meanwhile, far from Hong Kong, China's Communist Party-run labor organization, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, last month succeeded in its campaign to gain a seat at the top level of the UN International Labor Organization. On June 10 ACFTU Vice Chairman Xu Xicheng was elected to a three-year term as an alternate worker member of the ILO's governing body, which has 56 regular members (28 from governments, 14 employer representatives, and 14 worker reps), plus alternates. Xu, 59, narrowly won a run-off election conducted by the ILO's workers group at the annual International Labor Conference in Geneva.

"We are shocked and disappointed," Lee Cheuk Yan, general secretary of the Hong Kong CTU, said in a long statement on June 12, adding:

"This not only marks a major defeat for workers in China who are struggling to achieve the right to freedom of association (a struggle which only recently led to the imprisonment of workers in Liaoyang and Daqing for exercising this right) but also raises serious questions about the current strategy of the international trade union movement."
One large organization in the international union movement, the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, and Restaurant Workers, made its position clear in a long statement posted June 19 on its Website. In addition to summarizing the negative effect that the ACFTU's "enhanced recognition" would have on China's workers, the IUF also threw light on how the ACFTU gained votes from many representatives of ICFTU affiliates:
"The seat [the ACFTU] eventually got -- previously held by Israel's trade union federation Histadrut -- was carefully targeted to capitalize on widespread opposition to Israel's policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. Those national [union] centers who felt a vote against the Sharon government could be expressed by voting to substitute an organ of repression -- the ACFTU -- fell for the ploy and become complicit in opportunism. They are guilty of confusion, at best, and a serious lack of principle at worst....

"Union representatives who should know better have chosen to give legitimacy to a state-controlled apparatus for disciplining Chinese labor at a moment when Chinese workers are challenging the apparatus of power in that country."

For more on the implications of the ACFTU victory, see the China Labor Bulletin, especially a listing of background articles

Sweatshops Praised by NY Times Columnist

Better Red than dead -- that was the Communist line in Europe during the height of the Cold War. It played on widespread fears of a deadly hot war, and claimed that living under Communist Party rule was the only viable alternative. That fallacy gained adherents in many influential circles, but Andre Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Lech Walesa in Poland were not among them. They saw another choice: freedom. Against great odds, they dedicated themselves to struggling for that cause, and in a surprisingly short time, they won.

In retrospect, the better-Red-than-dead fallacy, though alluring to some at the time, now sounds simplistic. But our own modern era of globalization has its own naive but alluring ideas. Take one most recently propagated by a respected columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof, on the New York Times op-ed page of June 25. In an article titled "Let Them Sweat," Kristof essentially argues the line that sweatshops are good. Playing on concerns about world poverty, he proclaims sweatshops to be the only viable alternative for millions of poor people. "In poor countries, a low-wage job is better than no job," says the subtitle on his column, and Kristof explains: "The fact is that sweatshops are the only hope of kids" in developing countries like Pakistan.

Fact or fallacy?  Fallacy, say anti-sweatshop leaders in the developing world. Kristof blames anti-sweatshop campaigns on "Westerners" promoting "feel-good measures for themselves."  He ought to become familiar, for example, with the story of a non-Westerner like Iqbal Masih, a young Pakistani who saw that accepting the status quo was not the only option.

At 12 Pakistani Lad Dies Struggling for Freedom for Bonded Laborers

Sold into bondage for $16 at the age of 4, little Iqbal was forced to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, shackled to a loom making carpets for export. After seven years in bondage, he was rescued by a Pakistani non-governmental organization, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, and soon became an articulate spokesman of a dream to free the millions of Pakistani boys and girls working as bonded laborers in carpet weaving, firework, brick, and other workplaces. His activities in Pakistan, as well as in the United States and Sweden, to gain support for that dream did not endear him to the Pakistani elite. In April, 1995, a gunman cut short Iqbal's life at the age of 12 while he was riding a bicycle near his home village.

Yet Ibqal's dream did not die. Type "Iqbal Masih" into a Google search, and scan some of the 4,000 entries under his name for details about his life and the influence of his basic message: freedom for child laborers. (See, for example, a Swedish Website, Children's World.)  There you'll find powerful rebuttals to Kristof's belief that sweatshops are the "only hope of kids" in Pakistan and elsewhere.

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A Student and an Executive Enlighten NY Times Columnist

In a letter to the editor published in the June 27 New York Times, a leader of the Columbia [University] Students Against Sweatshops, Benjamin Wheeler, challenged the either-sweatshops or no-work dichotomy devised by Columnist Kristof.  True, sweatshop workers are grateful for jobs but they also want fair treatment, Wheeler pointed out, and the world-wide anti-sweatshop movement is helping them get it.

"Sweatshop workers I have spoken with need their jobs desperately," Wheeler wrote, "but they also have a litany of complaints. They want what any worker wants: fair treatment under law, reasonable compensation, the right to organize a union without being fired.
"Sweatshop workplaces have actually been improving in these ways worldwide, to the benefit of all parties involved, thanks to anti-sweatshop pressure and attention in the first world. Anti-sweatshop activists don't seek to destroy sweatshops.  We seek to improve them, and we are doing so."
Then, on July 2, the Times published another letter challenging Kristof's basic assumption. This letter, from Doug Cahn, the vice president for human rights programs at Reebok International, called Kristof "wrong when he suggests that sweatshop jobs are better than no jobs at all."
"Mr. Kristof's argument," Cahn wrote, "ignores the cycle of poverty that occurs when child labor, and other violations of internationally recognized standards, deny each new generation a chance at better jobs at higher wages. When companies improve standards in factories in poor countries, workers learn skills, earn wages, that typically exceed those paid in the informal sector, and often receive other benefits, like health care.

"Multinational companies, together with development agencies, human rights and labor rights groups trade unions and governments, have the opportunity to improve the quality of life for tens of millions of workers."

Footnote: In January, Dita Sari, head of the 22,000-strong National Front for the Indonesian Workers' Struggle, declined a 2002 Reebok Human Rights Award, with a $50,000 prize, because of "the low pay and exploitation of [Reebok] workers in Indonesia, Mexico, and Vietnam." 

Wall Street and the IMF Arm in Arm

What an operetta this story could make if Gilbert and Sullivan were composing for Broadway today!  I can only imagine the uproarious fun that the English duo would have with the saga of bungling by the men running much of today's world economy. Raw material for a witty musical comedy is there in page after page of two new books, "The Chastening," by Paul Blustein, a Washington Times reporter, and "Globalization and Its Discontents," by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in economics.

Both books describe the blunders that a Washington-based intergovernmental agency, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), made as it scrambled to cope with world economic crises in the 1990s. But at root the story of this mismanagement is not at all funny. Stiglitz' book, based on his seven years as an insider in Washington, is especially troubling, if you think through the implications of his analysis.

Both as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors and as chief economist of the World Bank, Stiglitz saw the U.S. Treasury Department and the IMF in action. He indicts them not just for blunders but for something far more serious: collaborating to serve the narrow special interests of investment bankers. He accuses them of working in tandem to change the IMF mandate from serving global economic interests to serving global finance," particularly Wall Street. Treasury and IMF were "reflecting the interests and ideology of the Western financial community," Stiglitz charges.

Specifically, the Treasury/IMF combo vigorously pushed capital market liberalization -- the unfettered movement of capital across borders -- "despite the fact that there is no evidence showing it spurs economic growth." He argues that rapid capital and financial market liberalization was probably the single most important cause of the East Asian financial crisis in the 1990s. "Capital market liberalization may not have contributed to global economic stability," he writes, "but it did open up new markets for Wall Street."

Although standard market economics holds that a lender who makes a bad loan bears the consequences, the IMF repeatedly came to the rescue of governments by providing them with funds to pay back loans to Western banks. The IMF's billions are also used to maintain exchange rates at unsustainable levels for short periods, long enough for foreigners and the rich to get their money out of a country in crisis.

Bailouts Great for Bankers But Not So Great for Workers in Thailand and Korea

It was great, he writes, that in the East financial crisis, thanks to IMF bailouts, American and foreign creditors got back most of the money that they had imprudently lent to Thai or Korean banks and business, "but it was not so great for the workers and other taxpayers of Thailand and Korea, whose tax money is used to repay the IMF loans."  But then:

"Adding insult to injury...after their governments have knuckled under to the pressure of the IMF to cut back on expenditures, so that the countries face a recession in which millions of workers lose their jobs, there seems to be no money around when it comes to find the far more modest sums to pay subsidies for food or fuel for the poor. No wonder that there is such anger against the IMF."
The IMF's tilt should not be surprising, says Stiglitz, since "many of its personnel came from the financial community, and many of its key personnel, having served these interests well, left to well-paying jobs in the financial community."  For example: Another Economist's Critique of 'Wall Street-Treasury Complex'

Jagdish Bhagwati, another mainstream economist, has leveled similar charges against what he called the "Wall Street-Treasury complex."  In the May/June 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs, he wrote: "This powerful network...is unable to look much beyond the interest of Wall Street, which it equates with the good of the world."  Like Stiglitz, Bhagwati strongly criticized Treasury/IMF for imposing the unfettered movement of capital on countries and for bailing out Wall Street investors. (For details, see the HRFW article "Wall Street's Self-Interest in IMF Bailouts."

Strangely, Bhagwati's serious charges in 1998 stirred no interest, not even letters in Foreign Affairs rebutting them. The mood at the time almost seemed to be "Okay, but so what?"  But today, with Wall Street's complicity in U.S. corporate scandals, it is about time to pay attention to its complicity in international scandals.

Both the Economist, in a book review, and the IMF, in an "open letter" by its chief economist, Kenneth Rogoff, have reacted strongly to many points Stiglitz made in his book. But, strangely, both completely ignored his (and Bhagwati's) core criticism: the IMF's partnership with Wall Street and how Wall Street's narrow self-interest has misshaped IMF policies. Is this too sensitive for a response?

Diary: A Baby Making Her Own Choices

My wife and I have our granddaughter, Mai Han Senser, 16 months old, living with us this summer. What a joy she is! Fortunately, since I work at home and determine my own schedule, I have the freedom to spend time with her whenever I wish, which is often. She calls me Papa, clearly distinguishing me from her father, who is Daddy. When she's in an especially jubilant mood, she shouts Pa-PAAA!  (For pictures of Mai, see my son Thuy's Website at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/tsenser/mai/fourthjuly02.html.)

Of course, the reactions of babies are always fascinating. But I am amazed by the number and range of choices Mai makes at her age, and how clearly she makes them. Often, to emphasize her rejection of something, she says no-not. To emphasize acceptance, she says shore do. She likes to make her own decision on what foods to eat and what videos or TV programs to watch, and on many other matters, such as when to be released from her high chair (Down, she says, or Down please). She has distinct preferences, even on which clothes to wear, but retains the freedom to change her mind.

I remember the assertions in psychology textbooks that a person's personality or character is a blend of genes and environment. And I still hear arguments posed in the same either-or fashion: Which of the two influences, biology or culture, is more important?  But in Mai I see a third influence: Mai herself, making her own choices. True, the other two influences are highly important, especially the "environment" provided by her father and mother (for example, the kind of musical videos they offer her). But narrowing those influences down to just two, Mai's genes and her surroundings, leaves out one key factor: Mai herself. Something within Mai  -- call it her soul, her spirit, or whatever -- makes her an active agent, not just a body determined solely by other forces.

I've seen this in Mai almost from the day she was born, and this summer I am blessed to see it in action every day. 

How You Can Make A Difference

Want to have your voice heard at work?  You can learn how to do so through the AFL-CIO's Voice@Work campaign. Among its services are publications, many of them free, providing basic information on the role that unions play at work as well as in local communities and the nation.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-7, July 6, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2002
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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