Vol. X, Bulletin No. 6                                                     May 4, 2005

Tragedy Strikes Bangladesh's Garment Workers Again


Agonized cries for help stopped after two days and nights.  It took eight more days for rescuers to stop searching for bodies from under the storey-high piles of  rubble that once was a seven-storey building.  Even a week later, nobody knew for sure how many garment workers -- women, men, and children -- died when the whole structure suddenly collapsed.  Estimates ran from 61 to over 100 dead and many more injured.

The disaster happened during the April 11 night shift of a garment factory in a swampy area 20 miles from Dhaka in Bangladesh. Some 300 to 400 workers were busy filling rush orders for European retailers when the big building started vibrating enough to cause cracks in its support columns.  Production continued for several hours, until everything and everybody went tumbling down together in a gigantic crash.

Tragedy in its garment factories is nothing new for Bangladesh, but this one still hit hard.  Demands grew for the arrest of the building and factory owners.  Angry garment worker activists confronted the head of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Women leaders of several human rights organizations demonstrated in front of the BGMEA headquarters.  Impoverished relatives burying the dead  couldn't help worrying about whether they could ever collect the unpaid wages of the victims.  And newspapers scorched the employers and the government.

Collusive Negligence by Employers and Government: Dhaka Paper

"Thousands of workers in Bangladesh put their lives and limbs on the line every day on the factory floors," the English-language Daily Star wrote on April 25. "It is the collusive arrangement of government agencies and the factory owners, who cut cost at the expense of safety of the workers that is the cause of so many deaths and injuries in this [garment] sector."

Without absolving the government and employers of Bangladesh, Neil Kearney, who leads the global union of garment workers, says that "the real villains are the European retailers who have sourced from that factory for years."  In an address to a trade union convention in Spain on April 26, he named some of the European companies that he deemed guilty of negligence (Carrefour of  France, the Cotton Group of Belgium, Karstadt Quelle of Germany, and Zara, part of the Spanish fashion distributor Inditex), and added:
"Brands and retailers are the ones driving the industry today. They search the world for the cheapest source of supply, they ignore blatant labor abuses, and they pay prices that bolster exploitation."
Kearney was describing more than the bad practices of the garment industry. Those practices flow logically from something more basic, an idea with a invidious hold on many modern minds. He was describing the free competition that afflicts today's global economy -- that is, competition freed of normal human values.

Could There Be Room for Conscience in International Trade and Investment?

In its April 25 editorial, the Daily Star also wrote: "The casualty figures of factory accidents in the last decade would put any person with a conscience to shame."  
But who believes that conscience, or shame, should have any place in our current system of international trade and investment?
Even as people in Bangladesh were coping with the latest garment factory disaster, a Bangladeshi delegation was in Washington seeking passage of a law granting a tax break for the country's exports to the United States: duty-free entry into the United States for all its products.  The delegation, which included representatives of the BGMEA, emphasized that without this concession from the United States the "poor women" in the garment industry, some 1,500,000 in all, would lose their jobs to competition from China. 

Annisul Huq, BGMEA president, makes the same plea on his Website: "Our greatest concern is for the women workforce who would be devastated if the RMG [ready-made garment] sector suffers."  (No word on the devastation caused to women and men by factory collapses and fires.)

Upon learning of the Washington visit, I sent BGMEA President Huq an email query:  "Does the BGMEA support making that duty-free privilege conditional on Bangladesh's agreeing to respect the right of its working men and women to safe working places?"

I then quoted from a May Day editorial of Dhaka's Daily Star: "This year [May Day] will be observed across the globe, including Bangladesh, with a fresh vow to institutionalize worker rights," and I followed with this question: "Now we have a timely opportunity to institutionalize those rights in a trade bill now under consideration." 

Will they seize that opportunity?  No answer yet from the BGMEA.  Nor from U.S. legislators.

Guatemalan Speaks for Powerless at Congressional Trade Hearing

No Hope for Poor in CAFTA: Bishop

Most Catholic clergymen in Latin America stand with the poor, but some march with them too. Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, is in the latter category.

Ramazzini has led a series of demonstrations against the exploitation of the land rights and other rights of indigenous Guatemalans, most recently in January against a huge foreign-owned gold mine that bulldozers are carving out of mountains near the Mexican border.

"Even some of my colleagues tell me not to become so involved, to be quiet," he told Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post.  "But for me it is a matter of conscience.  If we don't evangelize to help poor people, it's not the evangelizing of Jesus Christ."

Sullivan's article, subtitled "Mine Dispute Kindles Resurgent Activism in Catholic Church," described the church's opposition to the government-supported mine project.  (The opening sentence above is my paraphrase and distillation of an insightful analysis by Sullivan.)  By coincidence, the Post article, with a Guatemalan date line, appeared on April 13, the same day that the Bishop was in Washington to present his views to a Congressional subcommittee -- an event the Post ignored completely.

Trade Agreement Raises Moral Issues, Says Bishop Ramazzini

In the face of death threats and criticism of his continued activism, Bishop Ramazzini accepted the invitation of the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere to testify on the proposed U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) being considered by Congress.  The Guatemalan Congress has already ratified CAFTA, despite mass demonstrations and  the objections of the Catholic Bishops of Central America. 
In his oral and written testimony, Bishop Ramazzini emphasized that he was speaking "as a pastor who lives and works among some of the poorest people in the hemisphere."  Although trade ministers often urge him "to stop talking about social issues in relation to trade agreements," he said he makes "no apologies for calling trade agreements moral documents [since] they are about the lives of millions of poor people who will be left high and dry."

To support his position, he quoted from a Pope John Paul II statement in 1999:  "If globalization is ruled merely by the laws of the market applied to suit the powerful, the consequences cannot but be negative." 

Ramazzzini added examples of negative consequences cited by the Pope: "unemployment, the reduction and deterioration of public services, the destruction of the environment and natural resources, the growing distance between rich and poor, unfair competition which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever increasing inferiority."  But he left out one that headed the Pope's list: "the absolutizing of the economy" (see paragraph 20 of the Pope's apostolic exhortation, Ecclesia in America), probably because the English translation of the term is unclear (the French version, translated, is "the attribution of an absolute value to the economy").

CAFTA Likely To Lock In the Wide Inequalities That Already Exist

"We have been liberalizing trade in Guatemala for many years," he told the subcommittee.  "Yet poverty levels have increased, and the disparity between the super-rich and the very poor has become wider...I fear that current trade agreements will most likely lock in those inequalities."

Bishop Ramazzini disputed the promises made for CAFTA:  "The path of trade integration...has been presented as a wide avenue along which all can travel towards greater prosperity. In reality, it is a narrow path across a deep gorge that only the strongest and most capable can travel. It offers hope only to a few, and I fear no hope to those whom the Pope calls the 'weakest, the most powerless, and the poorest'."   

Among his specific criticisms of CAFTA:
In short: "The current model [that CAFTA follows] is deficient, and I am confident that we can repair it so that trade works for all, and especially the poor....To do so, we must all look at trade policies from the bottom up -- from their impact on the lives and dignity of poor families and vulnerable workers across the hemisphere." 
'Fast Track' Speeds Trade Bill Through Congress By Tying Congress' Hands

Unfortunately, Congress cannot repair CAFTA itself.  Congress can only accept it or reject it. 

That's because of a 2002 law, passed by a narrow margin under Chamber of Commerce and Bush Administration pressure, that puts trade bills on a 'fast track." It requires them to be rushed them through Congress without the possibility of any amendments, and thus increases Presidential powers to get Congress to approve the kind of trade agreements the White House wants -- agreements that idolize the "laws" of the market applied from the top down to suit the powerful..  (See "A Fast Track to Fast Track to...Where?" in the August 12, 2002, issue of Human Rights for Workers.)

Attached to Bishop Ramazzini's testimony was last year's joint statement on CAFTA by the Bishops of the United States and of Central America.

Church Leaders to WTO: Reform!

An ecumenical group of religious leaders visited the headquarters of the World Trade Organization in Geneva April 13 to demand a moral reform in the conduct of world trade.  The delegation delivered a petition expressing 1) the belief that trade must promote justice and 2) the demand that the WTO and governments revise trade rules and practices accordingly.

Under the heading "Trade for people, not people for trade," the body of the petition, signed by more than l80 leaders of churches and faith-based organizations, read as follows:

"We believe that trade must promote human well-being, sustainable communities, and economic justice, and that governments must be able to set trade policies to safeguard the rights of all people, especially those living in poverty.  

"We demand that our government and the governments of the world change the international rules and practices that govern trade so that they give priority to human rights and protection of the environment, and contribute to the eradication of poverty.

"In particular, we call for trade rules and practices which ensure:
The WTO's director for external relations, Alain Frank, who accepted the petition, suggested that it be sent also to other international agencies and national governments, since the WTO "cannot do more than it is equipped to do."

The delegation was headed by
the Rev. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, and also included representatives of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Young Women's Christian Association, and Franciscans International.

Applying Moral Values to Global Reality

As never before, religious leaders are criticizing today's trade rules for their failure to reflect basic moral values.  These initiatives deserve your support.  . But to be effective that support should be grounded not just in a commitment to principles but also in a solid knowledge of the facts. 

Here are two recent reports that will give you a good grasp of the facts:
'Special' Treatment for UN Global Norms

The UN Commission on Human Rights last month voted overwhelmingly to continue working to establish a global set of human rights standards for multinational corporations and their contractors.  The iniative thus survives a two-year campaign of opposition from the U.S. government and business organizations.

By a roll-call vote of 49 to 3, the Human Rights Commission on April 20 adopted a resolution to have a Special Representative, to be appointed by the UN General Secretary, develop the set of standards for consideration by the Commission meeting next year.  The three No votes belonged to the United States, Australia, and South Africa -- South Africa because it regarded the resolution too watered down.

Corporations Said To be Exempt from Human Rights Obligations

In a two-page statement explaining his vote, the U.S. delegate made this claim:  "Human rights obligations apply to states, not non-state actors [such as corporations], and it is incumbent upon states when they deem necessary to adopt national laws that address the obligations of private actors." 
The  International Organization of Employers made the same point in a three-page statement issued in March.

On April 21 an Amnesty International  statement praised the Commission's most recent decision, but expressed "strong disappointment that the United States...voted against it."  Among the 80 or more other non-governmental organizations applauding the decision was the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, headquartered in New York City.

The Commission's involvement began when its subsidiary body of human rights experts in August 2003 approved a document called "Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights."  The U.S. Council for International Business denounced it as "unfeasible, unnecessary, and counter-productive."   A coalition of human rights organizations welcomed it.

While the U.S. media, big and small, have ignored the controversy, Human Rights for Workers has been tracking it over the past 16 months, most recently with the article "Why Global Norms for Business Matter" in the April 2 issue.  And all this was before I learned of a statement by John Paul II in his 2001 address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences:

"As humanity embarks upon the process of globalization, it can no longer do without a common code of ethics....Such a search is indispensable if globalization is not to be just another name for the absolute relativization of values and the homogenization of life-styles and cultures." 

I found the full text of the Pope's address in the Winter 2005 issue of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, which just came in the mail.  The text can also be found on the Vatican's Website in English, as well as in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish.

I felt mixed emotions as I browsed through this issue of the Journal, with its 260 pages devoted to globalization -- glad, because of the richness of Catholic social thought; sad, because of the small number of Catholics who appreciate this gift and act on it. 

Freedom of Choice Act Relaunched

Although it gained  210 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 30 in the Senate last year, the Congressional Republican leadership refused to allow the Employee Free Choice Act  to come up for a vote (see "A Freedom Widely Suppressed"). This year Congress must again decide whether it will restore that freedom -- the right of American working men and women to be represented by a union.

On April 19 the Employee Freedom of Choice Act was introduced as H.R. 1696 and S. 842 under bi-partisan sponsorship: Senators Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Arlen Spector, Pennsylvania Republican, and Representatives George Miller, Democrat of California, and Peter King, Republican of New York.

At present, workers are commonly unable to unionize even if a majority of them want  to do so. They are blocked by militant employer opposition, in conjunction with employer-friendly National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) procedures.  A key feature of the proposed legislation would require employers to recognize a union if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing union representation. This option was previously available to by-pass the sluggish NLRB bureaucracy, which reacted by gradually shutting it down.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-6    May 4, 2005

Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2005
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