Vol. X, Bulletin No. 3                                                     March 3, 2005

Amnesty Challenges U.S. Secretary of State:

'Stop Undermining Global Business Norms'

The U.S. branch of Amnesty International is publicly calling on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reverse U.S. policy and take a stand advancing corporate human rights responsibility at the next meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva beginning March 14. 

AmnestyUSA's Website carries a draft letter that members of its "personal action center" can sign urging Rice to support "an earnest and constructive discussion" of a proposed set of human rights standards contained in a document titled "Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with regard to Human Rights," or Norms for short. 

Both the U.S. government, through the U.S. Mission in Geneva, and the U.S. Council for International Business (USCIB), last year expressed opposition to the draft Norms in formal statements to the UN Commission (see "Battling UN Global Norms for Business").

"International business can have a serious and often destructive impact on human rights," the AmnestyUSA Website states, citing examples of the pesticide factory explosion that killed tens of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, and a broken oil pipeline that deprived neighboring farm families of their livelihood in Nigeria.

'Corporations Exercise Tremendous Power in the Global Economy'

The Norms "represent a major step" toward a global legal framework for corporate accountability, AmnestyUSA states, but both the Bush Administration and industry bodies such as the USCIB have subjected them to "intensive and concerted attacks, largely based on false or misleading information....This approach ignores the tremendous influence and power that corporations exercise in the global economy." 

Amnesty's suggested letter to Secretary Rice closes with this appeal: "Rather than undermining the UN Norms for Business, I ask that the United States use our considerable power to play a leadership role in advancing the concept of corporate responsibility for human rights at the Human Rights Commission and in the world."

Setting the Stage for UN Norms Debate

Don't squelch it; let the dialogue continue -- that's the advice of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Louise Arbour, about the controversy over a set of global human rights standards proposed for multinational corporations.  Mrs. Arbour, a former judge in Canada, made the recommendation in a report to be considered by the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights March 14-April 22 in Geneva.

Her report, prepared at the commission's request a year ago and released on February 15, weighs the arguments for and against the standards, or draft Norms, proposed by the Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, and concludes that "there is a need, through the Commission, for continued dialogue and consultation among all stakeholders on the question of business and human rights."

Many corporations are already involved in a conscious and systematic effort to apply human rights principles to their own business operations and even to their own sector, Mrs. Arbour points out.  In addition, the UN International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the United Nations itself (through the Global Compact) have all, with the cooperation of business leaders, laid down human rights principles for multinational enterprises.

Better To Build on Momentum that Already Exists

Instead of accepting the argument that, therefore, the draft Norms are superfluous or duplicative, Mrs. Arbour calls upon the Commission "to build upon the significant momentum that currently exists to define and clarify the human rights responsibilities of business entities."  Instead of accepting the argument that the Norms are unworkable and impractical, Mrs. Arbour urges the commission to make them workable and practical through further consultation with business firms and business organizations.

In other words, the draft Norms are still that -- a draft -- and it needs to be improved with the help of business. Among the issues that she identifies as needing further clarification and research are
In the United States the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a long record of fighting labor laws and then, in many cases, such as legislation against gender discrimination in employment, gradually embracing the change as good for business.  Will that happen in the case of global human rights norms?   It depends greatly on the amount of outside support received by those leaders in the business community who think that the time has come for a change.  The logic for change is strong, but the pressure for it is not, partly because so far the U.S. media has been strangely silent about these global issues.  

NYC Initiative on Global Worker Rights

"In this day and age, it's disturbing that we need to put forward a shareholder proposal seeking decent working conditions," New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. said in a February 24 press statement on a new initiative to advance international worker rights.

Thompson was announcing that five pension funds for New York City employees have filed shareholder resolutions urging 15 companies to adopt workplace human rights policies conforming to the policies covered in key conventions of the International Labor Organization and in the proposed UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations with Regard to Human Rights.

"Issues such as child labor and the right to form and join a union have long been regulated in this country," Thompson said.  "There is no reason why these U.S.-based companies should not implement the same basic human rights in their overseas operations.  In fact, refusing to adopt these principles allows for reputational risk and potential losses for investors."

For details see the press statement, including the shareholder resolution submitted to one of the 15 companies, Dillard's Inc.

Against All Odds: the Fight against Slavery

Slavery was once so pervasive and so widely accepted that even the enlightened Adam Smith could declare in 1763 that slavery "has been universal in the beginnings of society, and the love of dominion and authority over others will probably make it perpetual."  And yet, surprisingly, the slave trade did die, and by the end of 1800 slavery itself lost its legal status almost everywhere.

In Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves Adam Hochschild chronicles how a small group of men launched an impossible crusade in the late 1700s and then gradually built up a grassroots campaign nationally that eventually moved the British Parliament to outlaw the slave trade in 1807 and then the British empire's slavery system in 1833.

"Looking back today," Hochschild writes, "what is even more astonishing than the pervasivenesss of slavery in the late 1700s is how swiftly it died....The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime."

That movement, he emphasizes, forged a historic landmark of human empathy and activism.  "The campaign in England was something never seen before: it was the first time a large number of people became outraged, and stayed outraged for many years, over someone else's rights. And most startlingly of all, the rights of people of another color, on another continent."

Hochschild rightly believes that conscientious people today "have much to learn" from how the British abolitionists overcame the great odds against their cause. "Their passion and optimism are still contagious and still relevant to our times, when, in so many parts of the world, equal rights for all men and women seem so far distant," he writes, and cites a few specific modern parallels of slavery:  prison labor in China, children making our shirts and shoes in Indonesia, and Latin American laborers who breathe in pesticides while picking the fruit on our tables.

Or at the very least, as Steven Mufson wrote in a Washington Post review, Bury the Chains "reminds us that people who fancy themselves civilized can have the most uncivilized institutions, that distance can lull a society into living with terrible injustices, and that economic interests can corrupt the moral fabric of a nation."

Going Easy on Wal-Mart's Law-Breaking
Although the U.S. Labor Department calls compliance with child labor laws one of its highest priorities, "its efforts to improve employer compliance suffer from limitations that hamper its enforcement of the law."  So said the General Accountability Office in a comprehensive report issued in September 2002.  The report's title: "Labor Can Strengthen Its Efforts to Protect Children Who Work."

Wal-Mart has agreed to pay $135,540 in fines for having been found illegally employing a total of 85 minors (16- and 17-year-olds) in hazardous work, such as operating chain saws, fork lifts, and scrap paper balers, the Labor Department announced in a press release on February 14.

The agreement with Wal-Mart was actually signed five and a half weeks earlier, on January 6, and first revealed publicly by the New York Times in a long story by its labor writer, Steven Greenhouse, on February 12 after several Department employees contacted him to express "concerns...that the deal provided special favors to Wal-Mart."

In one provision of the agreement, Greenhouse learned, the Labor Department promises to give Wal-Mart 15 days' notice before the Department investigates any other "wage and hour" complaints.  In the words of an unnamed wage and hour supervisor quoted by Greenhouse:  "With child labor cases involving the use of hazardous machinery, why give 15 days' notice before we can do an investigation?  What's the rationale?" 

Greenhouse's story also cited an email message from the director of the wage and hour division's Little Rock, Ark, dated January 10, just after the settlement was reached:   "Wage & Hour will not open an investigation of Wal-Mart without first notifying Wal-Mart's main office and allowing them an opportunity to look at the alleged violations and, if valid, correct the problem."  The Labor Department's press release failed to mention the advance notice to Wal-Mart headquarters, but said that the Little Rock office "coordinated the resolution of several investigations of stores in Connecticut,  Arkansas, and New Hampshire."

'Government's Loyalty Lies with Industry, Not With Young Workers'

Darlene Adkins, coordinator of the Child Labor Coalition, said in a February 16 press release that the Department/Wal-Mart agreement sent a "disheartening" message that "violators of child labor laws shouldn't have much to fear, even if caught."  Her two basic criticisms:
"It is increasingly apparent," Adkins said, "that the Labor Department's loyalty lies with industry -- not the young workers they are charged with protecting."
As Human Rights for Workers pointed out four months ago:  "On domestic and international labor issues, the Labor Department [under President Bush] generally joins the Departments of Treasury and Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the White House in fostering and promoting the interests of business," contrary to the Department's own charter, which is "to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people, to improve their working conditions, and to enhance their opportunities for profitable employment."

Franciscans International Lobbying the UN

Some day somebody will write a book describing the struggles of the emerging global movement to achieve equal rights for the world's workers.  Meantime, that story is being lived by people and groups whose good work seldom gains public recognition.

The other day I discovered one such group that I had not heard of before: Franciscans International, a nongovernmental organization which "works on behalf of the poor for peace, justice, and the care of creation at the United Nations in New York and Geneva."  Among other things, it is "devoted to making humanity a priority over trade," and is part of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which is dedicated to making trade "an instrument for the promotion of human well-being, sustainable communities, and economic justice."

Franciscans International came out in strong support of the UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and other Business  Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights even before that document was unanimously approved by the UN Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in August 2003.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-3    March 3, 2005
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2005
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