Vol. VIII, Bulletin No. 9                                                      September 8, 2003 


A Human Rights Lawyer's Proposal To Guarantee
The Right To Work and To Receive a Living Wage

"Every person shall have the right to work and to receive a living wage for their work."

Those 17 little words, if adopted as an amendment to the U.S. constitution, would go a long way toward ending poverty in the United States. So says William  P. Quigley, professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans and an active human rights lawyer for over 20 years.

In classrooms, public meetings, and magazine articles, Quigley has long been arguing for such a constitutional amendment.  Now he makes his case in a Temple University Press book titled "Ending Poverty as We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage." 

Quigley realizes that his proposed constitutional amendment has no chance of passing in today's political climate. But many a proposal -- Social Security, for example -- sounded hopeless when first introduced. "My students have a hard time believing that when their grandparents were born there was no Social Security for seniors," he writes. "Pensions for older people are now an accepted part of our way of life. Yet it was not always so."

Working Full Time, But Still Stuck in Poverty

The vast majority of Americans already believe that hard work and poverty are incompatible. But that belief, Quigley points out, is "simply not true." The truth is that many millions of men and women who work at full-time jobs -- about 30,000,000, by his estimate -- are earning poverty-level wages. "Historically, the first response to poverty has been to advise the poor to work. But if the poor are already working and cannot find a job at a living wage, what's the response? Usually silence."

Debating a constitutional amendment will end that silence, and enacting it would help solve a national scandal, Quigley holds. He rejects the argument that his proposal is faulty because it interferes with the free market: 

"Most people who advocate for a free market actually mean a business climate that is free of any regulation on commerce for the common good. At the exact time these folks are telling people to trust in the free market, their representatives are furiously lobbying Congress and every single state legislature for rules and regulations to assist businesses and to structure the legal, economic, and work environment in such a way as to advantage them. Their advantages disadvantage others."

Quigley dismisses another variation of essentially the same argument: that his proposal violates the "natural rules of the economic system.." His  response: there are no such "natural rules." The economic system "has been and still is constantly manipulated to the advantage of certain segments of society." That's so, he says, because "the market has no inherent interest in the common good. The market is interested in making money. That is its job. Period."

The obstacles to Quigley's proposal start with its need to appeal to a fundamental moral value not overly popular in modern education or in modern discourse and behavior. Too bad that the common good doesn't quite lend itself to TV packaging by Madison Avenue and Britany Spears on Monday Night Football.

SOS: Life Raft Nowhere in Sight

Officially, the recession ended nearly two years ago -- at least the National Bureau for Economic Research says it did -- so how come ordinary workers aren't cheering?

No mystery here. The recovery simply left them behind.  The Economic Policy Institute presented the evidence in a report issued just before Labor Day. Since the recession was declared over as of November 2001, troubles for working men and women increased as follows:
Lawrence Mishel, co-author of the report, comments: "This Labor Day finds more working Americans just treading water, trying to keep their heads above water and waiting for the life raft they've been told is on the way. The administration's promised  jobs and growth has not arrived, and doesn't seem to be anywhere on the horizon."

Mark December 10 on Your Calendar

International Human Rights Day is celebrated in many nations on December 10, the day in 1948 when the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Strangely, year after year, it has gone by quietly with very little notice in the United States. Now that silence will come to an end.

The AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions will observe International Human Rights Day in a big way this December. Rallies in more than a dozen cities will  highlight how widely a key provision of the Declaration on Human Rights -- the human right "to form and to join trade unions" -- is violated in the United States.  A statement adopted at the August 8 AFL-CIO executive council meeting explained:
"Despite the lofty words of the Declaration and the protections theoretically provided under U.S. law, the sad truth is that here in the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth, working men and women lack the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively today, and the situation is getting worse, not better.

"When workers seek to exercise this right, they nearly always run into a buzzsaw of intimidation, coercion, and disinformation that suppress their rights with devastating effectiveness. [Consequently] wages lag, inequality and poverty grow, race and gender pay gaps widen, society's safety net is strained, civic and political participation is undermined, and a crucial counterweight against unbridled corporate power is weakened."
A mass campaign is planned "to educate and mobilize our members, community leaders, and the public about the widespread suppression of the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively." Rallies scheduled in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and other cities will feature the personal testimony of workers who have been victimized by employer interference and government inaction.

Daring To Speak Its Name: the Laogai

No one has done more than Harry Wu to raise public consciousness about China's cruel forced labor prison system, the laogai.  His campaign has just scored another success. At his urging, the Oxford University Press has added the word laogai to the lexicon of its renowned Oxford English Dictionaries (OED).

The entry in the revised 10th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary is, well, concise: :
"laogai  n. (the laogai) (in China) a system of labour camps, many of whose inmates are political dissidents. Origin Chin., 'reform through labour'"
The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable gives recognition to Wu's advocacy:
"the laogai in China, a system of labour camps, many of whose inmates are political dissidents. The name comes from Chinese, meaning 'reform through labour', and is recorded from English from the 1990s.
"In 1996 the Chinese-born American activist, Harry Wu, said 'I want to see the word laogai in every language in the world. I want to see the laogai ended.' He went on to draw a parallel with the word gulag, suggesting that it was only in the mid-1970s that the word became known that pressure for the system to end began to grow."
The Laogai Research Foundation, which Wu heads, estimates that today China has 1,500 laogai labor camps holding about two million prisoners. Products they make continue to find their way to the United States. He points out, for example, that about 45% of the binder clips commonly sold in stores such as Staples and Office Depot are assembled by laogai prisoners.

In a July 6 talk in Washington to people involved in Catholic-sponsored programs for immigrants and refugees, Wu criticized the widespread assumption that America's massive trade with China will cause the regime to reform. Instead, he said, U.S. trade dollars are "a blood transfusion to save the dying Communist empire" from collapse.

Cashing In on Worker Rights Violations

As I was writing the following letter to David Broder, a Washington Post columnist, my computer crashed, perhaps for violating my resolution to stop wasting my time writing letters to the media.  After a while, I managed to get the computer functioning again and willing to email the letter to Broder, with cc's to the Post's ombudsman and letters page, in hopes somebody would take it seriously.
Dear David Broder:
In your Aug. 31 article, "Stemming Job Losses," you quote Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, as saying that U.S. "regulatory and litigation costs" are partly responsible for the loss of U.S. jobs to China. What are the U.S. regulations and opportunities to sue that he considers so burdensome, and thus candidates for elimination in order to make the U.S. competitive?

Specifically, does he advocate eliminating U.S. regulatory and enforcement instruments such as those:

-- for the protection of women and minorities against employment discrimination?
-- for the protection of on-the-job health and safety?
-- for the freedom of workers to form unions and the freedom of those unions to defend worker interests?
-- for the right of workers and others to criticize the government and to appeal to courts to remedy gross abuses committed by the government and employers?

Regulatory and litigation channels are intrinsic to a democratic society despite their "costs." Those channels are closed to people in China, thanks to a repressive government. The repression gives China a vast comparative advantage in international trade. More and more U.S. business firms find the large "cost" savings irresistible. As a result, they have moved millions of blue and white-collar jobs to China, and are moving millions more, not only out of the United States but from other countries where the "costs" of democracy are deemed too burdensome.

Top government officials from the United States and the rest of the world are in Cancun, Mexico, September 10 to 14 for a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. Will they deal with this crisis? It's not on the agenda, and won't be added unless writers like you pay attention. For reasons why you should, I suggest that you check the Website of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions at <http://www.icftu.org>. See especially a new report on worker exploitation in China and elsewhere to be issued on September 8.
For more on NAM President Jasinowski's concerns about the U.S.'s unbalanced trade with China, see his article "Made in China," originally published in the Washington Times.

Why World Trade Badly Needs Reform

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is complicit in fostering an international race to the bottom in worker rights, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions charges in a 25-page report on export processing zones entitled "EPZs: Symbols of Exploitation and a Development Dead End."  The WTO's clampdown on any discussion of the EPZ labor problems, the ICFTU says, contributes to "the negative downward spiral of lower labor standards...as governments compete against each other for foreign investment by offering cheaper labor, tax breaks, and other concessions."

The report, released as 150 union representatives were arriving to lobby the WTO's ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, urges the trade ministers to making a commitment that human rights, including the rights of workers, take priority over the commercial rules of trade and investment."  

EPZs now employ more than 43,000,000 workers, 30,000,000 of them in China's 2,000 special economic zones.  "The accession to the WTO of China, with its blatant disregard for worker rights," the report warns, is hastening the massive shift of jobs to China, "where companies can be sure of even lower labor costs and can count on the heavy hand of the state to repress any worker who dares raise their voice against exploitation."  Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines are cited as countries that have suffered job losses to China, and are losing more.

The huge success of China's export economy, the report says, is "largely owed to the unbridled exploitation of EPZ workers.  By leaving China free to operate in this way, the international community is pushing the economies of numerous countries around the world toward bankruptcy."

The Sharp Focus of ILO Focus

The daily newspapers and TV do precious little reporting on what's happening these days in the struggle for international worker rights. One very well edited source that fills part of the gap is ILO Focus, the quarterly publication of the Washington office of the International Labor Organization. The summer issue, for example, has articles on:
Besides appearing in print form, ILO Focus is available on the Washington office's Website at http://www.us.ilo.org.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-9   September  8, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
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