Vol. X, Bulletin No. 1 January 7, 2005
Unions Rush Aid to Tsunami Victims
The AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center, with field offices in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, is working directly with union partners in Asia to provide immediate aid to victims of the massive tsunami disaster. The AFL-CIO is also "committed to providing workers and their families with long-term support for housing, reconstruction, and other aid," President John Sweeney said in a letter to affiliated unions.
The Solidarity Center has established a Tsunami Relief Fund to address both short- and long-term needs. You can make a tax-deductible contribution by writing a check payable to the Solidarity Center Education Fund, with Tsunami Relief in the memo line, and sending it to Solidarity Center, 1925 K St., N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20006-1105, USA. For more information, check the Solidarity Center Website.
Oil Giant Settles Human Rights Case
On one side was the U.S. oil giant, Unocal, which in a joint venture with the government of Burma and another oil giant, Total of France, built a natural gas pipeline in Burma in the 1990s. On the other side were 15 villagers from Burma who in lawsuits filed in California charged that Unocal was liable for gross human rights violations committed in building the pipeline. The crucial issue was whether their case, in Doe et al v Unocal Corporation, falls under the provisions of the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which Congress passed in 1789 and updated in 1992 with the Torture Victims Protection Act.
Last month, after eight years of litigation, the two sides, in a joint statement, announced a settlement under which Unocal "will compensate plaintiffs and provide funds enabling plaintiffs and their representatives to develop programs to improve living conditions, health care and education and protect the rights of people from the pipeline region."
It was a victory for the villagers and for the rule of law. Unocal and major business groups, backed by a 30-page brief of the U.S. Justice Department, had been hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court would come to their aid, but in a decision on another case, the court disappointed them. In June 2004 it upheld the validity of ATCA for addressing egregious human rights cases, and sent "a clear message to multinationals who seek to profit from forced labor and torture of workers and other human rights victims," said Terry Collingsworth, head of the International Labor Rights Fund and lead counsel in the Unocal and a half dozen other ACTA cases.
Unocal's decision to come to an out-of-court settlement came a few weeks after California courts prepared to have the case come to trial. The specifics of the settlement are still being negotiated.
Church Leaders Oppose CAFTA
In a December 16 statement the Jesuit order in Central America urged the region's governments to reject the proposed U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and replace it with a gradual process of integration that "does not bless the current unsustainable situation of massive misery and poverty." But on December 17 the Salvadorian parliament ratified CAFTA by a 49-34 vote, making El Salvador the first country to do so.
Among the criticisms that a commission of the Jesuits' Central American province leveled at the proposed trade agreement is that it::
Central America is already able to export clothing and other products duty-free to the U.S., thanks to privileges granted under present U.S. trade laws. The Jesuit statement charges that the U.S. threatened canceling those privileges "if the [CAFTA] negotiations were not consummated."
- puts the patent rights of multinational chemical, biogenic, and pharmaceutical corporations before the health and lives of people.
- imperils the livelihood of Central American farmers by opening borders to imports of U.S. rice and other agricultural products that get huge U.S. subsidies and are consequently sold at lower prices than those grown in Central America.
U.S. and Central American Bishops Issue Joint Statement on CAFTA
These and other criticisms parallel many contained in a joint statement issued six months ago by the Catholic Bishops of Central America and of the United States (see "Mercantilism Disguised as Free Trade"). The Jesuit and the Bishops' statements voiced support for economic integration, but not the CAFTA variety, which grows out of the large imbalance in negotiating power between the United States and the small Central American countries.
The Jesuit statement suggested a strategy to correct that imbalance: a gradual "process of integration and of economic and political pacts among Latin American and Caribbean countries that can make us stronger in our negotiations with Canada and the United States, as well as with the European Union and Japan." (An email worker rights update from the National Labor Committee publicized the English translation of the Jesuit statement. Its original text, in Spanish, can be found at <http://www.jesuitascam.org> in the documentation section.)
In the United States, the 2,400-page CAFTA, signed last May by U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, will come before Congress in a few months for ratification under a "fast track" procedure that limits debate and in other ways rushes trade legislation through Congress.
In comprehensive testimony before the executive branch's trade policy staff committee two years ago Thea M. Lee, AFL-CIO assistant director for international economics, called CAFTA a copy of "the standard free trade agreement model" with provisions bound to make it "a failure for Central America and a failure for American workers." Moreover, contrary to Zoellick's claims, CAFTA's labor provisions fall far short of the requirements that Congress laid out in its Trade Act of 2002 (see the AFL-CIO analysis on how "USTR Misleads Congress on CAFTA Labor Provisions" and see "Trade Pact Flawed: Human Rights Watch" for more insights on CAFTA's weak labor provisions.
Why China Attracts So Much Business
The subject line read: "Scottish Sunday Post -- Press Enquiry." The mid-December email to me from the Iain Harrison, the deputy chief reporter of the Sunday Post in Edinburgh, Scotland, asked me to answer six questions to help him "write a news feature this week on the current working conditions in factories producing Christmas goods in China."
More or less the same questions come up every year, at roughly the same time, as reporters scramble to write stories with a Christmas angle. My first reaction was to slough off this last-minute inquiry. I started my reply by suggesting that Harrison do some Googling, even though he probably had done so already and found my Website and email address in the process.
Eluding Moral and Legal Responsibility
But one of his questions, touching a favorite theme of mine, proved irresistible. It was his last question: "Aside from cheap labor, why do so many firms continue to locate in China?" My response:
Cheap labor is not the main reason. The basic reason is that [the firms] can escape legal and moral responsibility for the treatment of the millions of workers (mostly female) who produce the toys, dolls, garments, shoes, and other "made-in-China" goods we buy. They rely on China's many sweatshop factories, contractors and subcontractors whose owners and managers have a free hand to exploit the young worker by
- making her work 10 to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.
- endangering her health and even her life in an unhealthy or unsafe workplace.
- firing her without notice, for no reason, often without even paying wages still due her.
- subjecting her to verbal and physical harassment if she dares to get out of line.
- keeping her in a condition that Anita Chan, an Australian sociologist, calls bonded labor (e.g., by withholding her first two or three months' pay, keeping her precious ID card, and engaging in other practices that make it almost impossible for an employee to quit without the boss' approval).
Who's to blame? Yes, of course the government of China, which fails to enforce even its weak labor laws. But most of all the blame falls on the governments of the countries who import these tainted goods and turn a blind eye to the scandal. Through the World Trade Organization those governments have established a massive set of rules, backed by sanctions, to protect the rights of business people and financiers engaged in international trade and investment, but those governments coldly ignore the rights of the working women and men who produce the goods.
Ah, yes, consumers benefit. But consumers benefited from slavery, too. And as consumers we are now benefiting from a 21st century form of slavery.
Harrison's news feature, a copy of which he was kind enough to send me, appeared on page 12 of the December 19 Sunday Post under the headline "Made in China means misery for millions." More than a third of it quoted my email. Another major source of his, Dr. Anita Chan, interviewed by phone at the Australian National University at Canberra, described the poor wages in southeastern China's Guangdong province, "a gigantic manufacturing powerhouse" (as she called it), from which she had just returned a few days earlier.
Factory Workers' Wages Decline in Southeastern China
"The production lines," she said, "are staffed almost exclusively by migrants from some of the poorer regions, of whom there are some 10,000,000. However, this phenomenal growth in employment has not ratcheted up labor standards. It hasn't translated into higher wages either.
"In fact, there has been a decline [in real wages], as competition to attract factories that sell to Western markets intensifies. The benefits of globalization don't trickle down to those who make the products. In reality, the wages of migrant industrial workers are often lower than the official legal standards."
A positive development cited by Chan is that China's workers are becoming more aware of their rights. "As a result," she said, "some advances are being made, but a lot more needs to be done."
Since some of Harrison's readers might challenge his story (especially as dramatized by its headline), I sent him some factual backup available on the Web, including a report in the latest issue of the quarterly magazine China Rights Forum (www.hrichina.org), titled "The Other Toy Story: Workers' Rights in China."
Correction: 'Shall' vs. 'Must' in China
The email below from Stephen Frost, research fellow of the Southeast Asia Research Center of the City University of Hong Kong, explains that, contrary to an article in my December issue ("China to Wal-Mart: Get in Step with Us"), China's Trade Union Law does not require a private company to have a branch of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).
I just received your latest issue. Great stuff, as usual. However, one sentence jumped out at me: "This fall it became clear that the authorities are serious about starting to enforce an often ignored requirement in Article 10 of the Trade Union Law: all public or private enterprises having 25 or more employees must establish an ACFTU unit."
The English translation of Article 10 actually uses the term "shall," not "must." I know this sounds like splitting hairs, but the meaning here is not "must". In Chinese, the term used is 'yingdeng,' which connotes should, shall, or ought to. The term for must is usually something stronger, like 'bixu,' which is in fact a term used elsewhere in Trade Union Law to indicate a legal requirement. That it's not used in Article 10 indicates that there is no legal requirement.
The meaning of Article 10, therefore, is that if workers want to set up a branch, then they have the legal right to do so. Companies "shall" (ought to, should) set up branches, but they are under no legal compulsion to do so. They would, however, break the law if they actively prevented the establishment of a branch. It's a very fuzzy area, I know, but Article 10 definitely doesn't mean companies must establish an ACFTU branch.
Nest Question: Will Wal-Mart and Other Multinationals Comply?
Stephen Frost is not splitting hairs. What "shall" means under China's laws is certainly crucial to Wal-Mart and other foreign companies. But will they respect the workers' legal freedom to have an ACFTU branch? And if they do comply, will the ACFTU, contrary to character, actively represent worker interests? To follow those issues in a timely fashion, there is no better source than Dr. Frost's own Website, actually a "blog" (www.asianlabour.org), which covers labor developments in China and other southeastern Asian countries on a daily basis.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-1 January 7, 2005
Robert A. Senser, editor
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