Vol. VIII, Bulletin No.11                                                      November 4, 2003 

Prodding U.S. on Corporate Responsibility

A top-level commission is urging the U.S. government to become much more active in promoting corporate social responsibility. In its 2003 annual report, released last month, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) states:
The CECC recommendation stems from failures in China that are only partially documented in the report.. First of all, China fails to enforce its own labor laws (one exception: the legislation denying workers the right to organize, which is enforced by jailing workers who start to form a union independent of the government/party labor structure). As a result, "many Chinese-made goods purchased in the United States are produced under conditions that would be unacceptable to most Americans." 

Further, social responsibility programs of individual corporations, mostly in the form of codes of conduct on labor practices, have little effect on their contractors, whose factories make most of the exported products.  Even "multi-company initiatives such as the Fair Labor Association, the Worker Rights Consortium, SA8000, and others have yet to produce measurable, widespread improvement."

Why Workers Must Be Part of the Process To Ensure Rule of Law

Seeking change through codes of conduct "must be part of a larger process that empowers Chinese workers to assert their rights under Chinese law," the commission observes, and quotes Han Dongfang, the Hong-Kong-based Chinese labor activist, on why worker involvement is indispensable in improving working conditions:

"I keep asking the question, 'Are we talking about...animal rights or labor rights?'  They are very different. Animal rights should be for those animals that cannot help themselves.  Human beings can go and help themselves....Workers in China and anywhere can help themselves [if they have the freedom to do so]."

In a section on prison and forced labor, the commission report reveals that U.S. legislation barring the importation of prison-made goods is not being enforced. Moreover, because of  "the lack of Chinese cooperation," a 1992 U.S.-China agreement on U.S. Customs inspection of prisons suspected of producing U.S.-bound goods is largely ignored. "Currently, the U.S. government counts a total of 18 outstanding requests for prison site visits, most of which were filed between 1995 and 2002," the report notes.

The CECC report does not express outrage over the poor human rights record it describes in 110 carefully worded pages. After all, the CECC is a governmental agency, an unusual joint body of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. It was created in 2000, after the Clinton administration smoothed the way for China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Nine U.S. senators, nine members of the House of Representatives, and five senior officials from the executive branch serve as CECC's commissioners, currently under the chairmanship of Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, a Republican.

They Embed Human Rights in Their Work

Very few national organizations have human rights embedded in their structure and their regular activities. One that has is the Washington-based National Academies, which groups three distinguished professional organizations -- the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Their joint Committee on Human Rights monitors human rights abuses committed against professional colleagues around the world and provides help to those unjustly arrested.

Currently the committee is campaigning to have the government of Vietnam release Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, 61, a Saigon physician and pro-democracy advocate who has already endured 18 years in forced labor camps and now is in jail once again. This time it is for trying to send an Internet message disputing Hanoi's claims that it allows freedom of information.

Twelve Nobel Laureates, including economists Milton Friedman and Kenneth J. Arrow, have written the Prime Minister of Vietnam to express "our deep concern about the health and well being of our scientific colleague" and to ask for his prompt release on humanitarian grounds (he is suffering from high blood pressure, peptic ulcers, and a kidney stone).  No one, not even his wife or a lawyer, has had access to Dr. Que since Saigon security police arrested him on March 17.

The human rights committee chairman, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate in medicine, is probably the only non-Vietnamese who has made a careful study of Dr. Que's life and writings, including his May 1990 manifesto on human rights.  On May 9 this year, in an address at the annual Vietnam Human Rights Day commemoration,  Dr. Wiesel compared Dr. Que to Andrei Sakharov, the famous Russian physicist and dissident. Wiesel revealed that Que has rejected offers by the Vietnamese government to release him if only he would promptly leave Vietnam.

"He has steadily refused to abandon his vision of a free and democratic country and his efforts to achieve it," Wiesel said. "Rather than being here with us tonight at this impressive event as a celebrated and honored guest, he is lying in a prison with no means of communicating with the outside world."

A petition protesting Dr. Que's arrest is at <http://www.hoathinhdon.net/drque/>.

U.S. Downgrades Human Rights: Prof

Since the September 11 tragedy, the Bush Administration has promoted a "sea change in human rights policy" at home and abroad, according to Harold Hongju Koh, professor international law at Yale University and assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Clinton administration. He made that point October 21 in delivering the 2003 John Galway Foster lecture in London. A lengthy extract from the lecture covered three pages in the November 1 issue of the Economist.

Koh contrasted present policy with that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941, when he "called the allies to arms by painting a vision of the world we were trying to make: a post-war world of four fundamental freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear." Now "human rights policy [is] fixated on freedom from fear," Koh charged, and cited a long series of domestic and international examples. Among them:

"Around the globe, America's human rights policy has visibly softened, subsumed under the all-encompassing banner of the 'war on terrorism'."
Koh ended his lecture on an optimistic note. "I, for one, have neither given up hope, nor accepted as inevitable a 21st century American human rights policy that is increasingly at odds with core American and universal values....I believe we can both obtain our security and preserve our essential liberty, but only so long as we have courage from our courts, commitment from our citizens, and pressure from our foreign allies."

A Very Limited Partnership: APEC

"Business and Government Representatives Only -- Labor Representatives Not Allowed."  No such warning hung at the doors to meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bangkok last month, but that exclusionary policy prevailed as government and business leaders gathered from 21 Pacific rim countries, including the United States. 

The theme for the occasion was "A World of Differences: Partnership for the Future," but as in the past (see "Only Businessmen Allowed Here: APEC"), the private economic sector partners came from the APEC Business Advisory Council, which APEC established in 1995, formalizing a close relationship already in place.  That same year Pacific rim unions created a counterpart unit called the Asia Pacific Labor Network (APLN), in the hope of gaining similar recognition from APEC.  The hope has yet to be realized.

APEC's "Bangkok Declaration on Partnership for the Future" included the organization's intentions "to strengthen efforts to empower people," but said nothing about any kind of partnership with workers or their representatives.

In a statement decrying this rebuff, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions said:  "Dialogue with the trade union movement is a key prerequisite to solving pressing economic and social problems facing APEC countries."  Earlier, an ICFTU/APLN statement developed that case in detail.

'The Most Dangerous Woman in America'

"My dear friends: Today in gorgeous mahogany-furnished and carefully guarded offices in distant capitals, wealthy mine owners and capitalists are breathing sighs of relief. Today, upon the plains of Illinois, the hillsides and valleys of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in California, Colorado, and British Columbia, strong men and toil-torn women are weeping tears of bitter grief.  The reasons...are the same. Mother Jones is dead."

Those words were part of the tribute paid to Mary ("Mother") Jones at her funeral Mass celebrated at Ascension Church in Mt. Olivet, Ill., on a Sunday early in December 1930.  Father John Maguire, then president of St. Viator's College, delivered the eulogy to 300 people inside the church and to many thousands more who heard it over loudspeakers and over radio station WCFL, then owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor.

"Mother Jones: the Most Dangerous Woman in America" by Elliott J. Gorn (Hill & Wang) recounts the life and death of one of American labor's most colorful, bravest, and best known organizers. The subtitle comes from a 1902 federal court hearing at which a prosecuting attorney, after describing Mother Jones'  pro-miner activism during a West Virginia coal strike, pointed at her and yelled, "This is the most dangerous woman in America."

I learned of the Gorn book from an article in the October issue of Initiatives, published by the National Center for the Laity (P.O. Box 291102, Chicago, Ill. 60629). The article is part of its biographical series on "North American Spirituality," which recently also featured Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day. 

Initiatives also has a series of "Work Prayers" that contribute to a better understanding of what spirituality really means.  The October issue quotes this one, which Father Tom Pelton offered at the opening of a new sewer project that replaced a century-old system in Chicago:

"Lord God, we seek your blessing upon the work of our hands and minds, so that this sewer project may be successful, that our people have patience and communicate together, that our workers be protected in every way. As we repair our infrastructure below the ground, may we continue to renovate our community above the ground in the days to come. Amen."

Front-Line Activism: Where Credit Is Due

As part of a class research project, a Boston University graduate student sent me an email query because of what he called my role "as a front-line activist."  An excerpt from my reply:

"I don't deserve to be classified as a front-line activist.  I'm in the back lines, far in back.  The front liners are those brave men and women who work in the factories of Indonesia, China, and other countries and dare to speak up against abuses. Next to them are their fellow citizens, often in NGOs, who, with equal courage, come out in support of their brothers and sisters in factories.  Then, important among those in the back lines, I would include corporate employees who work diligently (and often anonymously) to reform do-nothing corporate policy. 

"I suspect that in every large corporation there are people who want to do the right thing about correcting worker right abuses. The positive instincts of these people get a better hearing after front-line activists [and their allies] expose scandals to the public."

Email: Why WTO Talks Collapsed

To the editor:  The October issue of HRFW analyzed the breakdown of the World Trade Organization talks at Cancun, blaming it on WTO over-reaching ("How To Design Your Own Collapse"). A more accurate assessment would have emphasized that long-overdue concessions on agricultural subsidies and protection by the United States, the European Union, and Japan were supposed to arrive at Cancun. When it was clear that they wouldn't, a coalition of poorer countries walked out.

Now, I am sympathetic to the idea that the WTO may be going too far on issues like intellectual property, competition policy, and product standards. There is an important debate to be had about exactly how intrusive the WTO should be in regulating economic conduct "behind the borders" of member nations. But these talks broke down because of classical "at the border" issues of protection.

Sadly, many activists, who presumably want the best for the poor of the world, have gleefully cheered the failure at Cancun. What they were in fact cheering was the continuation of policies that prevent the poorest nations from sharing in the benefits of trade. For many of these nations, agricultural exports represent the first rung on the development ladder. They never reach that rung because rich nations use high tariffs on agricultural goods to prevent poor nations from selling in their markets. Worse, farm subsidies depress agriculture prices on world markets so that even in the places where the poor nations are allowed to sell, their produce yields lower returns than they should.

The result is continued poverty in poor nations, but it is no bargain for the United States, the European Union, and Japan either. Subsidies cost tens of billions of dollars taken from the treasures of these already debt-ridden economies. The subsidies are awarded primarily to very large farms in an especially egregious form of corporate welfare. They also encourage the use of marginal crop land that must be heavily laced with artificial fertilizers and pesticides to be made productive.

Keeping rich corporate farmers rich, poor farmers poor, building unsustainable debt, and damaging the environment in the process -- this is what activists were cheering in Cancun?

    -- David Hummels, Associate Professor of Economics, Purdue University

Time for You To Take Back Your Time

"Without thinking about it, Americans have [since World War II] taken all their productivity gains in the form of more money -- more stuff, if you will -- and none of them in the form of more time. Simply put, we as a society have chosen money over time, and this unconscious value pattern has had a powerful and less than beneficial impact on the quality of our collective lives."

So writes John de Graaf  in a new book that he edits, "Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America." He is a leader in a fledgling movement to reverse what he calls the "unconscious choice we've made as a nation" to undervalue time. The book makes its case with family, health, environmental, cultural, religious, historical, and other supporting arguments developed by 39 experts, including Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College and author of "The Overworked American."

The movement, which promotes its cause (and the book) on a Website at http://www.timeday.org, marked Friday, October 24, this year as the first annual "Take Back Your Time Day."  It was an invitation extended in the hope that, on the day before the nation turned its clocks back to standard time, "thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans [would] JUST SAY NO to the overwork, over-scheduling, and overstress that threaten to overwhelm our lives."

That didn't happen. But the cause is a worthy one, and we should at least start thinking about it.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-11    November 4, 2003
http://www.senser.com, Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003
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