Vol. XI, Bulletin No. 6                                                     June 23, 2006


AFL-CIO Demands Action To Protect Rights
Of Chinese Workers, and Those of Americans Too
"Global corporations from Wal-Mart to Proctor & Gamble to Delphi to Dell relentlessly squeeze labor costs in their Chinese affiliates and suppliers and use the threat of low-wage competition to roll back decades of hard-won gains in wages, benefits, and dignified treatment for workers in the United States.  The severe exploitation of China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of a coin."

Thus does the AFL-CIO open a 179-page petition demanding that the Bush Administration take action against the government of China for exploiting  Chinese workers to the point of also causing severe harm to American workers and American communities.  A similar AFL-CIO petition two years ago met outright rejection because,  instead of litigating, "our Administration is focused on producing real results," as then U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick put it (see "Reaching Out to China's Workers and Ours" and "Bloodletting as Trade Policy").

Two Members of Congress, a Republican and a Democrat, Are Co-Petitioners

On June 8 the AFL-CIO returned to the President's Office of the U.S. Trade Representative with its new petition, this one challenging the administration to reopen the case because in the past two years
Joined by two petitioners from Congress -- Christopher H. Smith, U.S. Representative (Republican) from New Jersey, and Benjamin L. Cardin, U.S. Representative (Democrat) from Maryland -- the AFL-CIO is seeking remedies under section 301 of the Trade Act   That section empowers the President to impose trade sanctions against "unreasonable trade practices," including violations of internationally recognized worker rights. The AFL-CIO petitions of 2004 and this year are the first to employ that provision to prod action against worker rights abuses.

Despite its post-Mao economic reforms, China still has "nothing resembling a free labor market in the manufacturing sector," the AFL-CIO petition emphasizes. "Through extraordinary exertions of state power, the Chinese government, with the complicity of corporate managers, created and perpetuates an enormous subclass of factory workers....80,000,000 to 100,000,000 manufacturing workers, constituting as much as half of all manufacturing workers in the world economy" [italics in the petition].

Government and Corporations in China Must End Regimentation

With this extraordinarily large, low-paid, and  regimented work force, the petition continues, "China will continue to serve as the World's Sweatshop, producing low-technology goods alongside high-technology goods for decades to come -- unless the multinational and domestic corporations operating in China and the Chinese government radically reverse course and dismantle their regimentation of factory workers."

To help promote such a reversal, the AFL-CIO petition calls upon the President to have corporations let some sunshine into their China operations, which are now very secretive.  They would be required to disclose comprehensive data on wages, hours, and other working conditions for both their affiliates and contractors.

Cited in the petitions are commitments on international worker rights made by the People's Republic of China in a series of agreements: the International Labor Organization's 1998 Declaration of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work,  the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which China ratified in 2001.
*   *   *

Initiative a Direct Challenge to Privileged

In the present environment, the AFL-CIO petition on China will not be quickly embraced.  At root, it is a direct challenge to the unbalanced way that the global economy has developed.  Read the document's final paragraphs for an idea of the broader issue at stake:

"All countries, including China and the United States, face strong incentives to compete for mobile capital and jobs by cheapening the labor and debasing the lives of their working citizens.  These incentives are created by global rules that protect rights of property and contract but not rights of personhood and labor....

"Nearly a century ago, Congress declared that 'the labor of a human being is not a commodity or article of commerce.'  It is time that the United States used its extraordinary bargaining power to ensure that internationally recognized workers' rights are given the same protection that is now given to rights of commerce."

In other words:  Today's global rules favor commerce with rights and privileges awesome in their generosity, and without any corresponding responsibility or accountability.  How many people and institutions in this richly advantaged position would lose it without a vigorous fight?

'Wall-Street Complex' Is Alive and Well

"Wall Street has exceptional clout with Washington," Jagdish Bhagwati, world-renowned economist, wrote in a 1998 Foreign Affairs article. What is the reason for that exceptional influence?   "There is, in the sense of a power elite a la C. Wright Mills, a definite networking of like-minded luminaries among the powerful institutions -- Wall Street, the Treasury Department, the State Department, the IMF, and the World Bank most prominent among them," Bhagwati explained, and continued: .

"This powerful network, which may aptly, if loosely be called the Wall Street-Treasury complex, is unable to look much beyond the interest of Wall Street, which it equates with the good of the world."

Bhagwati identified six of the prominent members of this network as examples of those involved in what I would call the VIP executive exchange program -- or the revolving door for the elite -- between Wall Street and Washington.  One man he cited was Robert Rubin, who became Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury after serving on Wall Street.

Rubin of course has returned to Wall Street since then.  But the big news now is about the latest distribution of elite hats:
Will Paulson and Zoellick, in their new posts, look beyond the interest of Wall Street and not equate it with the good of the world? Naive question.

Garment Workers' Anger Jolts Bangladesh

Discontent has been building up in Bangladesh's export garment industry for years, but especially so since early 2005 .Sixty-four workers died and 70 were seriously injured in the sudden collapse of a seven-storey garment assembly plant near Dhaka on April 11 (see "Greed Kills, and Greed Pays")   Then, in February and March of this year, 88 others lost their lives in four more tragedies in firetraps.. 

Worker groups held small protest demonstrations.  The garment owners association held meetings.  Newspapers wrote critical editorials. A union federation in Holland sent a delegation. But little happened to aid the victims and their families or to make unsafe factories safer.  Meantime, even as the cost of living rose, the government kept the minimum wage at the 1994 level.

On the morning of May 22, the discontent boiled over into a riot.  Reportedly, it began at sweater factory after a dispute over low piece work rates that often netted less than $10 for a month of 29 days of labor. The protest spread to nearby garment factories, and before long, tens of thousands of workers were rampaging through the streets in and around Dhaka to vent their grievances. Some clashed not only with police but also with employees loyal to the factory owners. Angered by a report that police had shot a demonstrator, some marchers set two factories ablaze and vandalized dozens of others.

Before calm returned on May 23, two workers were dead, at least one of them from gunshot wounds.  Then, that afternoon, leaders and members of the garment manufacturers, angry about business losses and the breakdown of public order, took to the streets, temporarily blocking a downtown traffic circle.

Like the aftershocks of an earthquake, conflicts continued to rumble through sections of the country's five export processing zones (EPZs). Some 70,000 workers remained locked out of work for days. Although some individual factories gave wage increases, the business associations, in meeting after meeting, stuck to a tough position. Most of them kept telling themselves that worker grievances did not spark the unprecedented riots and that no general improvement in conditions,  such as an increase in the minimum wage, which has been frozen since 1994, was necessary without further study.

Without Unions, No Useful Channel for Communication

Although there are several unions in the garment industry, they are weak, without standing under Bangladesh law and ignored by almost all factory owners. Ought that change?  Three answers:
On June 8, after hearing a report from Neil Kearney, just arrived in Geneva from Dhaka, the UN International Labor Organization's Committee on the Application of Standards adopted a report rapping Bangladesh's knuckles and demanding that, among other things, the government  halt the suppression of  union rights in the EPZs.

Singing Praises for Sweatshops, Again

"Let Them Sweat" was the title of a column published in the New York Times in June four years ago (see Sweatshops Praised by NY Times Columnist).  In it, Nicholas D. Kristof held up sweatshops as "the only hope for kids" in developing countries like Pakistan, and charged that Western anti-sweatshop campaigners are just promoting "feel-good measures for themselves." 

Kristof returned to the same themes in a June 6 column titled "In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop."  This time he prescribed sweatshops for the poor countries of Africa, and urges American students to start campaigning to bring them there.

The students deserve an apology from Kristof. In their unselfish and persistent pioneering, they have shown many of their elders how it is possible to end both injustice and poverty among the millions of workers who make the garments we wear. 

Mark Barenberg, a professor of international labor law at Columbia and a director of the Worker Rights Consortium, put the matter bluntly in a letter published in the June 8  Times by asking:  "Doesn't it make sense to campaign for both more jobs and better wages for the poorest workers?  In fact, this is what students are seeking."

Sweatshops create wealth for the elite.  They guarantee that poor people remain poor and that the countries depending on sweatshops remain ensnared in poverty. 

Take Bangladesh.  For more than two decades that country has relied on the sweatshops and near-sweatshops of its large garment export industry to lift its people out of poverty.  Instead, Bangladesh has stayed on a treadmill of underdevelopment.  In 1990 the United Nations Development Program, in its first human development index, ranked Bangladesh down at 136 on a list of 160 countries. In the UNDP's latest human development ranking, Bangladesh is 139 of 177 countries.

Kristof does not quite understand what a sweatshop is. Here are some of the ways that, according to the AFL-CIO's petition on China, sweatshops in China cheat workers of their pay.
And that's just a very partial definition of a sweatshop, limited only to variations on stealing wages.

Tracing The Shrinking Reward for Work

Whatever its title may suggest, "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," a new book by economist Benjamin M. Friedman of Harvard, is not a call for a simple increase in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.  Rather, in it Friedman develops the case for a broad-based increase in the GDP, one that reflects economic gains for a clear majority of Americans.

Friedman is worried because the U.S. economy has fallen short of that kind of progress.  "Except for a brief period in the late 1990s," he writes, "most of the fruits of the last three decades of economic growth in the United States have accrued to only a small slice of the American population."   He continues:

"After allowing for higher prices, the average worker in American business in 2004 made 16% less each week than 30-plus years earlier.  For most Americans, the reward for work today is well below what it used to be."

Friedman devotes most of his book to tracing the historical link between economic growth and social, political, and moral progress. He finds that, by and large, the trends -- up or down -- parallel each other, not only in the United States but in countries throughout the world. But  he acknowledges important exceptions.  In China and Saudi Arabia, for example, economic growth has not meant advances in freedom and democracy.

Also, Friedman describes the U.S. Great Depression of the 1930s as an exception to the rule that economic stagnation generally leads to a country's moral decline. In this case, the economic disaster did not erode public and private cooperation but fostered it instead. For that Friedman gives much credit to the moral leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  In fact, the chapter on "Great Depression, Great Exception" can provide today's leaders food for reflection and action not only on the moral consequences of economic growth but on the economic consequences of moral growth.

Colombia Leads in Killing Union Members
More trade unionists are killed each year in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined.  "The Struggle for Human Rights in Colombia," a new publication of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, makes that point in the course of describing the South American country's horrendous human rights record.  According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Colombia is, year after year, the world's deadliest country for trade unionists.

This record of unfreedom has not prevented the U.S. Trade Representative from completing a "free trade" agreement with Colombia.  It still faces ratification by Congress. 

Human Rights for Workers
: Bulletin No. XI-6   June 23, 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2006
(Send e-mail)

Back to Home Page