Vol. XI, Bulletin No. 8                                               September 2, 2006

'State of Working America' Makes International Comparisons

How U.S. Lags Behind Other Rich Nations

"The State of Working America 2006/2007," a pre-publication edition of which was issued by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) just before the September 4 Labor Day, is a gold mine of information on the United States and its families. 

The  350-page volume reveals a sharp contrast. On the one hand, the U.S. economic expansion that began in late 2001 has posted impressive productivity growth.  On the other hand, real income for the typical family is lower than it was in 2000, while the incomes of the best-off families have grown rapidly.

"Productivity growth has been seen as the tide that lifts all boats," EPI President Lawrence Mishel explained in a press release, "but today we're seeing more and more Americans rowing harder and harder but not moving forward, while the big boats zoom farther ahead."

Putting the U.S. Economy into a Much Larger Context

This comprehensive study also does something that the U.S. mass media usually neglects.  It puts the U.S. scene in an international context by comparing the social and economic situation in the United States with that of other rich countries -- specifically, the 19 other wealthy countries belonging to the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Here is how the United States rates in some significant areas:
So How Does U.S. Economy Rate as a Model for Other Countries?

I culled almost all of the above information from "International Comparisons," the last chapter of the eight-chapter book.  The last paragraph of that chapter says:

"Countries should not assume that the highly deregulated, high-inequality U.S. model is the most successful economic model.  Other countries with less inequality and more regulated markets have relatively impressive macroeconomic outcomes (France, for example, has higher productivity levels than the United States, yet much higher unemployment).  Moreover, unlike the United States, many of the citizens in other countries have a deep respect for the role of government in their lives, and they look at the U.S. model with a more jaundiced view than policy makers touting the U.S. model."

"The State of Working America 2006/2007," by Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Sylvia Allegretto, will be published in its final version (incorporating the fall 2006 Census Bureau data) will be published by Cornell University Press on January 1. 

To Add Values to a Value-Free System

Human Rights Watch's new report, "Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship," notes that a Google vice president has publicly urged that the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, "should treat censorship as a barrier to trade."  In testimony at a Congressional hearing in February, Elliott Schrage, a Google vice president, expressed support for making "[anti-]censorship a central element of our bilateral and multilateral [trade] agendas."

The Human Rights Report, released August 10 in Hong Kong, develops a strong case that the U.S. government should take action to help Western internet companies break away from their collaboration with China's censorship.  But the Google suggestion is not among the report's recommendations.

The companies insist that, to work in China, they must comply with its laws. The report charges, however, that they have done little to resist the government's demands, and have in effect actively cooperated by censoring themselves. Instead, says Human Rights Watch, they should comply with censorship demands only if they are made via legally binding procedures that can be documented and only after the company has exhausted all legal means to resist. 

Yahoo Complicity in Arrest of a Chinese Journalist

Human Rights Watch strongly criticizes the decision by Yahoo to disclose the identity of private users to China's authorities.  "This assisted in the imprisonment and heavy sentences of four Chinese government critics," the report states.  In the latest episode, for example, Shi Tao, a journalist, last year was sentenced to 10 years in prison after Yahoo provided security police with information about his yahoo.com email account, which he had used to communicate with a U.S.-based human rights Website.

Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, explains: "Laws are needed to end this race to the bottom and establish a level playing field so that the Chinese government can't pick off companies one by one.  Otherwise the standard set will be that of the company trying the hardest to please the Chinese government."

Those laws, Human Rights Watch recommends, should would prohibit U.S.-based Internet firms from, among other things: 
Moreover: "Victims and families members of victims who are jailed or otherwise harmed due to company violation of the law should also have the right to sue the company in a country to which jurisdiction it is subject."   In other words, the family of a future Shi Tao would have the right to sue Yahoo in U.S. federal courts. 

It is unfortunate, however, that Human Rights Watch's 149-page report ignores an idea that has had some support within the industry itself -- an idea that would insert human rights values into a trade system largely devoid of them.

Standardizing Responsibility by Number

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has formalized over 15,000 global standards, each with its own ISO number.  Now that organization is developing an international standard with guidelines on "social responsibility" for corporations and other organizations, and has already designated its ID -- ISO 26000.

A working group led by the national standards units of Brazil and Sweden is drafting the standard, with October 2008 as the target date of publication.  Although the preliminary draft has not been released, it is known that the final text will cover the key conventions of the International Labor Organization and of other UN bodies..

"The need for organizations in both public and private sectors to behave in a socially responsible way is becoming a generalized requirement of society," the ISO writes.  But unlike the typical ISO standard, this one will be a "guidelines standard"  -- that is, voluntary -- without the accreditation  procedures common for ISO standards.

So will ISO 26000 make any difference in the global economy's factories and offices?  It might, depending on the final text.

Little Progress So Far Seen in Corporate Social Responsibility

Garrett Brown, an internationally known expert on health and safety issues, holds that so far initiatives on corporate social responsibility have produced "very little tangible progress."  To be even minimally useful, he insists, the proposed new social responsibility guidelines need provisions requiring 1} much more transparency in the whole auditing process and 2) "a feasible, effective means for workers in the audited enterprises, or their representatives in non-governmental organizations, to contest errors or misrepresentation in CSR audits and reports."

Brown is a compliance officer with the California division of occupational safety and health (the state's OSHA). That's his day job.  He devotes most  of his weekends and other spare time to promoting worker health and safety. His principal advocacy role is as the pro bono coordinator of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, which has the volunteer help of  400 health and safety professionals.  He is also a frequent contributor to professional journals, and last year published an article in Industrial Safety and Hygiene on "ISO's 'Social Responsibility' Guidelines -- a Small Step Forward, Maybe."

Identifying The Real Roadblocks to Progress

In that analysis, Brown emphasized that the obstacles to advancing social responsibility in the global economy "is not a lack of guidelines, or management CSR [corporate social responsibility] command-and-control systems, or certification schemes."  In his view, the real obstacles are these:
"The proposed ISO guidelines will not overcome those obstacles," Brown wrote, adding, however, that it still "would be a welcome development" if the guidelines contribute to "an upward harmonization" of corporate codes of conduct, auditing and reporting procedures, and the many other CSR activities now in existence.

The Shame of Washington's Politics

Although the federal minimum wage has been frozen for nine years now, 22 states and the District of Columbia have moved to raise their minimum wage above the federal level of $5.15 an hour.  (For background, check A Moral Issue: Raising the Minimum Wage.)  As a result, more than half of the nation's population (58%) now lives in states that have minimum wages higher than that mandated by U.S. law, according to an analysis of the Economic Policy Institute. The lowest of the new state minimums are those in North Carolina, $6.15 an hour, and Arkansas, $6.25.

Unlike Social Security benefits and U.S. civil service/military pay, the federal minimum wage is not automatically adjusted annually to keep up with inflation.  So it is up to Congress to update the law periodically.  Since it hasn't done so for nearly a decade, the purchasing power of $5.15 an hour has deteriorated by 20% -- putting its purchasing power value at its lowest level since 1955. 

A briefing paper, "Buying Power of Minimum Wage at 51-Year Low" issued by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, documents the sorry record of inaction by the federal government (meaning both the Congress and the White House).

An estimated 6,600,000 Americans would have gained a pay boost if the Senate had last month agreed to upping the federal minimum incrementally to $7.25 by 2010.  But House Republicans had tied the increase to another round of tax cuts for the ultra-rich, and their bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate, thanks to Democratic opposition.

So, in current Congressional election campaigns, Republicans can now claim that Democrats killed a minimum wage increase, even though the bill's primary purpose is revealed in its title: "H.R.5970 Title: To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to increase the unified credit against the estate tax to an exclusion equivalent of $5,000,000, to repeal the sunset provision for the estate and generation-skipping taxes, and to extend expiring provisions, and for other purposes."  

Such is the level of Washington's political morality.

Dr. Bernanke's Poor Prescription

In a long and thoughtful speech on August 25, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that "further progress in global economic integration should not be taken for granted" and suggested how policymakers can counter opposition to globalization:

"The challenge for policymakers is to ensure that the benefits of global economic integration are sufficiently widely shared -- for example, by helping displaced workers get the necessary training to take advantage of new opportunities -- that a consensus for welfare-enhancing [global]  change can be obtained.  Building such a consensus may be far from easy, at both the national and the global levels."
Building that consensus will indeed be far from easy -- impossible, really -- when, in the mind of a high-ranking official like the Federal Reserve Board chairman, the example for sharing the benefits of globalization is to apply a Band Aid.

Bernanke would be wise to read an article in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs by Robert H. Wade, professor of political economy at the London School of Economics. It is titled "Questions of Fairness: In Search of a Just International Economic Order."  In it Wade demonstrates that the present international economic order is unfair and unjust, and recommends some necessary reforms.

The fact that Foreign Affairs, a mainstream publication, published this article, as well as another economic critic of global economic integration (Joseph E. Stiglitz's "The Ethical Economist" in the November/December 2005 issue), is a sign of a growing shift away from the economic dogma that still hobbles the U.S. government in its international trade and investment policies.

Helping the Labor Department Do Its Job

The U.S. Department of Labor now has a "back wage employee locator" on its Website --a database that workers could search for any money owned them from the Department's back-wage settlements with employers. 

A June 1 Department  of Labor (DOL) press release described the new on-line database as "part of an ongoing effort to meet the e-government objectives of the President's management agenda".  Left unmentioned was that the innovation came about only after a lawsuit filed by a Chicago-based worker rights organization, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ).

In 2002, as part of its advocacy work, the IWJ had discussions with the DOL about the need for a Website to make restitution to those workers whom the Department was unable to locate.  At that time, there were about 95,000 such cases, and the Department had $32,000,000 in its Backwage Collection and Disbursement System.  When Labor officials raised technological concerns about getting the site established, IWJ offered to set it up, and with a small grant from a Chicago organization, developed the structure for a searchable data base, working closely with Labor's technology staff.

When the IWJ was set to launch the Website, however, DOL refused to provide the names of the workers owed back pay, and broke off communication with IWJ.  But IWJ pursued the matter, and had to do it diligently.  First, it filed a Freedom of Information request with the Department to obtain the names. Then, after the Department denied the request, claiming it would invade the workers' privacy, IWJ appealed the denial.. In January this year, after the Department stalled in responding, IWJ, represented by the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court.

The lawsuit broke the logjam. This May the Labor Department finally sent IWJ a list of approximately 7,500 workers owed back wages, and revealed that it planned to launch a back-wage Website through an independent contractor.  In the IWJ's August newsletter, which recounts the four-year struggle, Kim Bobo, the IWJ executive director, writes: "We are happy with the DOL decision to create this new tool. We look forward to helping them improve it."

Diary: Raising Child Labor Awareness

At long last, I've started to explore the world of blogging.  I might have continued to ignore it, except for an email that I received recently.

"I took a trip to your site, and was very much impressed with its content," the letter said.  The writer, Kate Grant, introduced herself as the webmaster of a non-profit blog, Child Labor Awareness, at http://childlabor.typepad.com.

When I took a trip to that blog, it was my turn to be impressed.  There, at the top of the home page, Grant explained: "This blog was created in order to bring into consciousness the sad reality of child labor around the world in the 21st century.  Currently, I'm collecting every piece of information I can find regarding this subject, and putting it here with reference to the origin.  Please comment and spread it to people who may find this interesting."

After I emailed Grant my congratulations, along with a question about what got her involved in this cause, she emailed back: "We are a group of people who suffered from different child abuse issues and decided to raise awareness to all aspects of child abuse including child labor.  People like you convince me that there are still great people in this world.  God bless you and yours."

I  promptly wrote back: "I am convinced that the world has many people who are 'great,' and many more potentially great, but they are isolated or walled in by their jobs or other circumstances.  Your kind of initiative has the potential to break down the isolation and the walls.....Please tell me more  about your team....At first I thought y'all were in the UK, but you don't spell like the Brits.  Canadians maybe."

"You'll be surprised," she replied, "but we are from Israel.  We are a group of people -- friends from the old high school days, and we always talked about these kinds of issues.  We decided that talking is not enough, so we built several blogs on several issues...women's rights, breast cancer, child abuse, AIDs, etc., and we are trying to get these issues to the public eye."  (For links to other blogs, check http://www.worldawareness.org).

The latest issue of Child Labor Awareness, August, has informative articles on the Chilean President's call to end child labor, a workshop in Indonesia on child labor and education, and India's expansion of its laws against child labor.  On its home page, the blog lists 10 organizations combating child labor and five "dedicated blogs" (all worth visiting).  In addition -- and this really shows how bright this team is -- there is only one name under "Interesting Sites" -- Human Rights for Workers.

My son Thuy suggested months ago that I consider switching my HRFW website to a blog. Now, thanks to my exposure to this child labor blog and its blog links, I'm seriously looking into the idea.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. XI-8   September 2,. 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2006
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