Vol. XI, Bulletin No. 10                                               November 3, 2006

Declining Enforcement of the Law in the United States

The Child Labor Coalition, a non-profit group dedicated to ending the labor market exploitation of boys and girls, charges that U.S. Department of Labor has been indifferent about its responsibility to enforce U.S. child labor legislation -- to the point of perhaps violating an international child labor convention that the United States ratified more than six years ago.

"As the government continues its lackluster enforcement, youth continue to be injured in the workplace -- at a level of some 230,000 injuries a year," the Coalition said in a press release announcing a new report, "Protecting Working Children in the United States: The Government's Striking Decline in Child Labor Force Activities in the United States."

The Coalition last month submitted a copy of the report to the UN International Labor Organization headquarters in Geneva, questioning whether the United States may be violating ILO convention 182, which calls for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.

Low Fines Assessed on Employers' Child Labor Violations

Based on data that the Coalition received from the Labor Department under the Freedom of Information Act, the new report shows a persistent decline in child labor enforcement. For example:
The Coalition, co-chaired by the National Consumers League and the American Federation of Teachers, groups more than 40 organizations, representing consumers, labor unions, educators, human rights organizations, and child labor advocacy groups. Personal disclosure: I've been an active supporter of the Coalition since its founding in 1989.
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Children Reappear in Bangladesh's Garment Industry

Worker rights violations have continued to plague the made-for-export garment industry in Bangladesh. For one thing, many of its 2,000,000 workers still work in dangerous firetraps (see "Greed Kills, and Greed Pays" in the issue of May 4, 2005). But in recent years, thanks to international pressure and the work of the International Labor Organization, export garment factories have, in accordance with Bangladesh law, stopped employing boys and girls under the age of 14.  At least, that was the good news coming out of Bangladesh.

So it came as a surprise last month when the anti-sweatshop National Labor Committee issued a well documented report titled "Child Labor Is Back: Children Again Sewing Clothing for Wal-Mart, Hanes, and Other Companies."  In fact, the child labor abuses they found at the Harvest Rich factory complex surprised even Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee (NLC), and his colleagues when they personally interviewed the  factory's child workers and others.

They learned, among other things, that Harvest Rich:
A Current Example of 'Lawful, Humane, and Ethical Manufacturing'

The NLC report reproduces a "certificate of compliance" awarded to Harvest Rich Ltd. from WRAP, which is short for Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production, a monitoring group founded by the American Manufacturers Association to promote "lawful, humane, and ethical manufacturing throughout the world."  The certificate, valid till February 21, 2007, is the latest illustration of how corporations monitor their factories for compliance with their codes of labor conduct.

In an October 27 statement WRAP called the reported labor abuses at Harvest Rich "shocking and disturbing ...especially if they are true," and promised an appropriate investigation. 

Actually, the NLC report should not be terribly surprising or shocking. Why should it be? 

Consider the environment of the global economy.  It has bountiful rules, many enforced by the World Trade Organization, that promote commerce. But it leaves an enormous (and undeniable) global-level gap because of the absence of protections for labor, while granting a full network of protections for business.  Should there be any wonder that, in the keen competition that prevails, many corporations -- even those with good (but voluntary) codes of conduct -- take advantage of that gap?  They are free to cut costs by cheating workers and to seek discipline by beating them.  And they can do so legally.

Imagine a city without laws against speeding.  If its citizens get into bad accidents by driving cars at 100 miles an hour or more, who bears the greater blame -- the speeders or the city's policymakers?

Economists' Minimum Wage Views Shifting

They said so before, and now they are saying so again.  Each time, they spoke "as economists who are concerned about the problems facing low-wage workers," and so they endorsed increasing the minimum wage in statements coordinated and released by the Economic Policy Institute. 

Two years ago, 562 economists, including four Noble Prize winners, signed a statement supporting a modest, inflation- indexed increase at both the federal and state levels. In October this year, 664 economists, including Joseph Stiglitz and four other Nobel laureates, signed the same statement. 

In both statements, they said: "We believe that a modest increase in the minimum wage would improve the well-being of low-wage workers and  would not have the adverse effects that critics have claimed."

Field Studies by Some Economists Refute Critics

Among those critics have been most professional economists, believing that wage floors cause job losses.  In its October 28 issue, The Economist weekly reflected those same views, but added that empirical studies conducted by economists have eroded the "consensus view."  Now, according to the Economist, "if it were up to economists...fatter tax subsidies would top the list for helping the working poor" because "the higher minimum wage does not do much to relieve poverty." 

Why?  Because a higher federal minimum is "a blunt instrument" -- it would directly help "only 5% of the work force, [or] some 6,600,000 people." Only 6,600,000 people?  Hmmm. Many a non-economist would call that a mighty good first step.

Maybe that's why, well before the November 7 election, 22 states and the District of Columbia had raised their minimums above the decade-old $5.15 an hour federal level.  Maybe that's why, on November 7, voters in six more states (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio) will do likewise.

Worried about Economy? You Should Be

Why do most Americans think that the American economy isn't working for them?  Because it isn't.  A new report released by the Economic Policy Institute highlights the worrisome vital signs of an ailing economy.  Here are several, excerpted from the report by economist Max B. Sawicky:

Business Should Be Worried Too, Says Wall St. Journal

You can check the EPI Website for the documentation.  And for confirmation of the trend, you can read the business column in the October 25 issue of the Wall Street Journal. There columnist Alan Murray quotes political analyst Charlie Cook as writing that most Americans "know the economy is white hot but they also know they aren't in it....There's a feeling that some people are getting theirs, but we aren't getting ours."   
"There's a well known litany of reasons for that," Murray continues, and after listing them (many almost identical to those identified by EPI), he writes:
"The danger for business is that the broad social support for pro-business and pro-market policies that has characterized American politics for a quarter century or more could be breaking down.  You see tame hints of that in popular Democratic proposals for a minimum wage increase or for government negotiations to push down drug prices.

"A much stronger dose comes from Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown, who is given good odds of winning his challenge against Ohio Senator Mike Dewine [Republican].  He calls for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Permanent Normal Trade Relations agreement with China.....

"A Democratic wise man told me recently that if he were asked what economic platform would offer a Democratic presidential contender the best chances of success in 2008, he would have to say it's an anti-trade, anti-globalization, and anti-immigration platform. For now, none of the best known Democratic candidates -- Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, or the latest fad, Barack Obama --are taking that tack.

"But the problem here isn't Democratic leaders.  It's Democratic followers.  If the reservoir of dissatisfaction grows,...the election of 2008 could be the one where economic issues come back, and with an anti-business vengeance."

Good/Bad News for Labor on Globalization

I have just discovered an impressive Blog called Global Labor Strategies.  Here's an excerpt from its home page.

Globalization is undermining the foundation upon which labor movements have been built.  Unions are rooted in national laws, national institutional structures, national labor markets, and national customs.  But the corporations they confront are global -- roaming the world for cheap labor, market access, and fewer environmental and other regulations.  And capital moves around the world with the speed of a computer key stroke.

The result: capital has outflanked labor.  No matter how strong the national labor movement, no matter how high the union density, a union can be rendered powerless if a company moves abroad, or even threaten to.

The critical question is: how can workers and their organizations address this fundamental mismatch [which affects virtually every advanced industrial country]?... 

The global economy is continually evolving in ways that affect everyone. In the name of competitiveness, there is a global assault on labor and employment laws [and on] public services, public welfare and pension plans; growing transnational ownership of huge service corporations and the consequent loss of bargaining leverage; the increasing ability to outsource service sector and high skilled jobs; and the spread of new remote technologies. More and more jobs that were once thought to be outside of the global labor market are now very much in play.

Increasing global competition pushes companies not just to move jobs to low wage areas but to adopt new staffing strategies that rely heavily on contingent work and on automating, eliminating, and speeding-up the jobs that remain.

But it’s a classic bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that corporate and capital mobility undermines unions around the world. The good news is that creates a common interest among workers and their organizations around the world facing similar problems.  Those common interests are expressed in a wide range of actions and proposals for solidarity and mutual support around the world.

Human Rights for Workers is second on the Blog's list of  32 "Global Labor Links."  Almost all the 31 other names on that list are friends of ours, including very close friends such as Solidarity Center and China Labour Watch.

The Blog contains a report titled "Behind the Great Wall of China," subtitled "U.S. Corporations Opposing New Rights for Chinese Workers."  Unfortunately, with a deadline at hand, I don't have the time to write an article about the struggle that this report describes.

New Global Labor Federation Born

Two international labor confederations, once rivals, met in Vienna on November 1 to form one large global labor organization.  The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labor (WCL), both headquartered in Brussels, are now a unified movement named the International Trade Union Confederation, or ITUC, representing a union membership of 166,000,000 belonging to more than 300 affiliates in 156 countries and territories.

Outside the ranks of the new organization is the World Federation of Trade Unions, formerly headquartered in Prague, now in Athens. It criticized the ITUC, even before it was born, for failing to defend "a class line."  In August a WFTU delegation visited the All-China Federation of Trade Unions in Beijing to discuss closer "closer collaboration."

Over the years, as a writer or as a U.S. Foreign Service labor officer, I attended dozens of conventions of the ICFTU and the WCL, as well as their regional bodies in Europe and Latin America.  I wish I could have been in Vienna to attend this historic event.  Ironically, it occurred even as the U.S. labor movement remains split.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. XI-10   November 3, 2006

Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2006
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