Vol. VIII, Bulletin No.12                                                      December 3, 2003 

Human Rights for American Workers, Too!

The labor policies and practices of the U.S. government and of U.S. corporations regularly violate the human rights principles incarnated in UN International Labor Organization conventions and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the world's nations, of course, this country is very far from the most serious violator of the basic rights of working men and women, but it falls far short of meeting the standards that matter -- including America's own, in its advocacy of freedom and democracy abroad, and at home in its pledged commitment to liberty and justice for all.

According to poll data, more than 40 million Americans would join a union if given a chance. But when they try to do so, they are routinely harassed, intimidated, coerced, even fired, as the AFL-CIO says in a press release. "Employers get away with it because too few people are aware of the ferocity of employer opposition to workers who seek to form unions and because U.S. labor laws are weak and ineffective."

To raise public awareness, on Wednesday,  December 10, International Human Rights Day, the AFL-CIO and other allies of working people are launching a campaign with a simple message: worker rights are human rights, and must be respected.  Workers, community activists, religious leaders, and elected officials will deliver that message at rallies, marches, teach-ins, public hearings, and other events in dozens of cities, including Washington, D.C., where a noon-hour rally will be held at the national headquarters of the U.S. Department of Labor at 200 Constitution Avenue.

Check the listing of December 10 events.  If you can't attend, you can learn much about the cause behind them by checking the links on the AFL-CIO Website.  

China Is World's Sweatshop -- Who Cares?

In an interview with a New York Times reporter, Joseph Kahn, a hospitalized worker had this to say about a pharmaceutical corporation in China:  "They have no regard for human lives."  In his November 4 story, Kahn then added: 

"Such disregard appears all too common as China booms....The number of people who die at work, 11,500 through the first nine months of this year, is far disproportionate to workplace fatalities in other countries."

The worker he interviewed, Shen Yunxiang, was recovering from severe lung congestion caused by his attempt to clear out toxic waste illegally stored under the Hisun Pharmaceutical plant in Taizhou, China. Two of his Hisun fellow workers, both from rural China, were less fortunate. They died from unprotected exposure to the fetid mud in which they were forced to work.

Hisun is one of China's leading exporters of anti-cancer medications to the United States and Europe. Hisun, Kahn wrote, "may pay more attention to fighting cancer in the United States than to protecting the health of its own workers in Taizhou, a seaside industrial city where the air and water bear Hisun's inky signature."

Kahn described a pattern of safety and health violations at Hisun, as revealed by company officials, workers, local residents, and government sources. But a spokesman at Eli Lilly & Company, one of Hisun's customers in the United States, said that the company had no knowledge of any such problems. In recent years Hisun has passed seven inspections by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, thereby certifying that it meets U.S. standards for product safety. 

Thanks to exports, Hisun's sales are expected to reach $150,000,000 this year. One of its comparative advantages in the global economy, Kahn wrote, "seems to be that it does not expend much money to treat toxic chemicals that are byproducts of producing these drugs."

Choosing Death and Degradation as the Price of 'Progress'

Kahn's article, headlined "Foul Water and Air Part of Cost of the Boom in China's Exports," is the latest in a Times series of articles on the "World's Sweatshop," which (as the newspaper puts it) "are examining the hazards facing industrial workers in China, now Asia's leading exporter to the United States."  Among the significant points that Kahn made in his lengthy article, also published in the International Herald-Tribune, was this:

"Hisun's case suggests that the enormous human and environmental toll of China's rapid development is not just an unintended side effect but also an explicit choice of business executives and officials who tolerate deaths and degradation as the inevitable price of progress."

That honest analysis -- the crass acceptance of deaths and degradation as a price of progress -- prompted me to email the following letter to the Times:

"In his November 4 article Joseph Kahn is right in suggesting that 'the enormous human and environmental toll of China's rapid development is not just an unintended side effect but also an explicit choice of business executives and officials who tolerate deaths and degradation as the inevitable price of progress.'  Because of such concerns, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (www.cecc.gov) has urged the President to establish a Coordinator for Corporate Social Responsibility to upgrade U.S. government efforts to improve the labor policies and practices of U.S. corporations that contract out production in China. [For details, see "Prodding U.S. on Corporate Responsibility" at http://www.senser.com/03-11-04.htm.]

"Nice idea, but woefully insufficient to curb U.S. corporate acceptance of deaths and degradation as a tolerable cost of China's boom in exports to the United States. The Times series on China as the World's Sweatshop is documenting scandal after scandal for which the guilty parties escape prosecution. When will somebody be held accountable for these crimes?  Shaming corporations by publicizing their complicity is important, but punishing criminals is more effective."

Reflecting on 'IBM and the Holocaust'

I suspected that the Times wouldn't print my letter (it didn't), but I wrote it anyway because I had to. At the time I was reading "IBM and the Holocaust," which documents in exhaustive detail IBM's collaboration with Nazi Germany from the start of Hitler's regime in 1933 and continuing well into World War II. 

In his introduction, the author, Edwin Black, writes: "This book will be profoundly uncomfortable to read."  For me it was much more than uncomfortable. It was infuriating to learn that:
Rewarding a Modern Dictatorship

The Nazi holocaust was a unique catastrophe in human history. In the past two decades, however, Communist China has achieved its own special mark of  historical distinction. Never before has a powerful dictatorship been granted so much modern technology, so much mass financing (through investments and trade), and so many other rewards, including undeserved respectability, from the world's leading democracies -- especially the United States and its leading corporations. 

In the past three months, first at Catcun in Mexico and last month at Miami, the Bush Administration suffered setbacks in its obsessive drive for so-called free trade agreements, all devoid of any concern for senseless deaths and degradation. Meantime, however, under a special "free trade" deal between Washington and Beijing, massive imports from the People's Republic of China continued at an ever faster pace, greased with the profits from the unfreedom of China's working men and women.

What You Can Do

I checked the Websites of Eli Lilly & Company, a Hisun partner, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which represents the leading pharmaceutical firms, to see whether they had any written commitment, such as a code of conduct, to safeguard the lives and limbs of their workers. I found none. Then I sent them an email query for the same purpose. No reply.  An email from you might be more productive.
Pharmaceutical companies have been spared the kind of anti-sweatshop protests engendered by shoe, clothing, and toy companies. That deserves to change. But such protests by consumer and worker activists, while useful necessary, are insufficient. Much, much more is needed to improve the lot of the  millions of men and women in China who have become America's overseas labor force.

Reflect on a comment made by an American business executive ten years ago. "Markets," he told the Wall Street Journal, "prefer political order and stability to any particular political [system], and stability to any political doctrine, communism, or whatever. As long as communism provides an ability to make money and stability, investors will be attracted to China."  That explanation by William Wilby, a vice president of Oppenheimer Management Corporation, was quoted in a January 1993 Journal article headed "Why Global Investors Bet on Autocrats, Not Democrats."

Companies Like Wal-Mart Make Up Most of China's Total Exports

Reflect, too, on some remarks that Wen Jiaboa, China's premier, made last month in a lengthy interview with the Washington Post.  Of late the Bush administration has been publicly criticizing China for its record trade deficit with the U.S. and blaming China's exchange rate for making China's goods so financially attractive to American buyers. Wen rejected that explanation. The important attraction, he said, "is the abundant supply of competitive labor in China's market." 

Enterprises in China that are wholly or partially owned by American and other foreigners, he pointed out, make up about two-thirds of China's total exports. "The majority of profits actually go to the foreign investors," he added. "These include the U.S. invested enterprises, such as Motorola and Wal-Mart."

So the "World's Sweatshop" is the market system at work in its ugliest form.  But blaming the "market" won't do. The market is just an abstraction.

In reality, the market is you and me and people like us -- men and women in their multiple roles as parents, citizens, voters, consumers, politicians, preachers, teachers, union members, corporate leaders, and investors. 

Investor Concerns and CEO Unconcerns
Those are two key findings of a new Opinion Research Corporation survey of 2,096 Americans, including 1,199 investors. In a similar ORC survey  two years ago, sweatshops came in second, product safety first. This year the two switched places.

Results of the survey were released last month in a report titled "The Ethical Issues Report: What Matters to Religious Investors" by the group that commissioned it, Mennonite Mutual Aid. "These investors are paying attention to the ethical practices of the world around them, including the businesses in their mutual funds and stock portfolios," said Howard L. Brenneman, president of the Goshen, Indiana-based organization.

In a separate survey, also conducted by Princeton, N.J.-based Opinion Research Corporation (OPC), only one in five persons answered yes to this question: "From your perspective as an individual investor, do you believe CEOs are as concerned as they should be about the reputation of their company?"  A similar question posed to non-investors garnered the same low opinion of CEO concerns. 

"Despite the headlines claiming that companies are actively engaged in changing their corporate behaviors for the positive,...one small point is being missed," said Jeffrey T. Resnick, director of  OPC's corporate reputation practice. "The individual investors don't buy it."

The survey did not explore how many individual investors are doing anything to change CEO complacency.

Wal-Mart Leads Global Race to Bottom

"Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?" asks the headline of a Business Week October 6 cover story. The article's answer: Yes, because "Wal-Mart's dominance creates problems -- for suppliers, workers, communities, and even American culture."  Part of the magazine's evidence for how Wal-Mart "flexes its muscles" in the United States and around the world:
Business Professor S. Prakash Sethi, in his book "Setting Global Standards" (Wiley & Sons), calls Wal-Mart "the principal [sweatshop] culprit" in the retail store industry, based on his survey of labor and human rights abuses exposed in the media between 1994 and March 2002. During that period, Business Week itself exposed at least one Wal-Mart scandal in China: a October 2, 2000 report headed "A Life of Fines and Beating" about workers in a Wal-Mart (and Payless) handbag factory that broke China's own labor laws by, for example, failing to pay legally required wages. 

Professor Sethi has called upon on multinationals and their contractors to make "restitution for years and years of expropriation of the wages of workers who are at the bottom of the food chain and are least able to defend themselves." (See "Nike, Others Told: Pay Stolen Wages" in the May 2, 2003 issue of HRFW.)  But why should Wal-Mart do so? 

Business Week, while editorially bemoaning "The High Cost of Low Prices," lauds Wal-Mart as "the best global benchmark for corporate efficiency." That  hyper-efficiency makes Wal-Mart the prime business model for the global race to the bottom in labor standards, but with profits from $12,000,000,000 in its imports last year from China, the world sweatshop, Wal-Mart mangers and stockholders can afford to laugh all the way to the bank.
* * *
A Mea Culpa for Being Tardy in Focusing on This Terrible Story

As I look back on the content of HRFW issues of the past year, I see, and must admit to, a large failure: my failure to take note of what the New York Times called the "Wal-Martization of America."  I had  collected some material on that chilling trend, with Web access to much more, but I just didn't focus on it. No excuse.

For insights into the issues, check the Websites of the United Food and Commercial Workers, the National Labor Committee, and Mother Jones, as well as of  Wal-Mart itself.  See also the Globalization Factline of the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

Human Rights for Workers:  Bulletin No. VIII-12     December 3, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2003    (Send email)                                             Back to Home Page