Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 22.                                                        December 1, 1999 

A Leading Example of Confusion on Worker Rights

The New York Times Stands Uncorrected

"Clinton Is Stymied on Trade Meeting," a page one headline of the New York Times reported on November 24. I highlighted a long sentence about President Clinton's proposal on labor standards in the story's sixth paragraph. How could the Times be wrong?

That very same day I emailed the Times a letter to correct its statement that Clinton is "insisting that the next round of trade talks take up, for the first time, the question of protections for workers -- allowing the WTO [World Trade Organization], for example, to ban the export of goods made by child labor."

"I wish this were so," I wrote, "but it isn't.  It is not so because, contrary to your story:

The Case for the Public's Right to Know

After giving the Times the phone number of a U.S. government source for checking the Clinton agenda at Seattle, I closed with this plea: "You may deem this a small matter, not enough to merit a correction or clarification. But this is an important issue, and misinformation such as this muddies public understanding and hinders a sensible resolution of a heated dispute affecting basic human rights."

I looked in vain for the Times to run a correction or clarification. Instead, the Times chose to clear up errors such as "the surname of the chef and owner of the Wistub zum Pfifferhiis in Ribeauville, France,...is Laurent Meistermann, not Miestermann."

On the very same day that the above correction appeared (November 28), the Times again misstated the Administration's position on labor standards. It added an additional error by reporting that President Clinton is asking the WTO to "set and enforce international labor standards,"  The International Labor Organization already sets international labor standards. Clinton is aware of that and is not planning a change.

No, I didn't write the Times another letter. Earlier I had written a complaint to the Washington Post for a similar error. No reaction from there either. 

Many a Row to Hoe Beyond the WTO

As of the date this HRFW Bulletin is written, there is no word on what the WTO did, or did not do, about worker rights during its November 30-December 3 summit in Seattle. Either way, there's much, much work to be done in the vast world beyond the WTO.

Richard B. Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard, supports linking trade rights with worker rights in international agreements, but he points out that such a linkage, even if eventually adopted by the WTO, is no panacea. He is right. There are no panaceas. There are simply dozens of  instruments, new and old, that people can use or develop in the cause of social justice (or call it putting a human face on the global economy).

Here are some of instruments, illustrated with recent examples of how they are utilized:

Shareholder pressure.  Each year institutional investors introduce a range of shareholder resolutions on the responsibility of corporations for the labor standards of their overseas suppliers.  It's an uphill struggle, as illustrated by the fate a resolution filed with the Walt Disney Company by 11 Catholic religious orders and several other groups.  They asked the company to report on how it enforces its code of conduct in the 18,000 facilities making Disney-branded products.  The resolution was endorsed by 100 million shares of stock at the company's shareholders meeting in February, but because of the opposition of the Disney Board of Directors that was only 8.3% of the votes cast.

Consumer pressure. In an August article titled "The Shame of Sweatshops," Consumer Reports, long a guide to product quality and price, added its voice to growing concerns about the quality of life of overseas workers producing for the U.S. market.  "Speak up," the magazine advised its 4.5 million subscribers. "Let stores or manufacturers know you don't want to buy products made in sweatshops."

Licensing agreements.  By law a manufacturer cannot put the name of a college or university on caps, T-shirts, jackets, gym bags, and similar products except as authorized under a licensing agreement with the school.  More and more schools are now holding their licensees to a code of conduct, and some of them have gone a step further. Under pressure from their own students, they are insisting on "full disclosure" of the each factory that makes goods emblazoned with the school's name.

Law enforcement.  To benefit from the privilege of duty-free imports into the United States under the so-called General System of Preferences (GSP), a developing country is supposed to provide its workers with decent labor standards. To meet that U.S. statutory requirement, the government of Bangladesh in 1992 promised to phase out legislation that stripped its export-processing zone workers of their rights under the country's own labor laws. Since, after seven years, Bangladesh had not canceled the discriminatory legislation, the AFL-CIO in June filed a petition with the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to revoke Bangladesh's duty-free privileges.  This petition is one example of legal initiatives available to stimulate compliance with the worker rights conditions contained in the GSP and other U.S. foreign trade and investment laws, the enforcement of which has been flabby under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Law suits.  To settle a federal class action law suit seeking $1 billion in damages for violations of U.S. labor laws,  four major U.S. retailers in August agreed to create a joint independent monitoring system to check the labor practices of their contractor-owned garment factories in Saipan and other parts of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. Commonwealth in the Pacific.  The retailers--Nordstrom, Gymboree, Cutter & Buck, and J. Crew--also agreed to ban charging  "recruitment fees," which, running as high as $10,000, kept workers (mostly women) hired in China and elsewhere in Asia in indentured labor to pay them off.

New legislation.  A report of the Economic Policy Institute urges Congress to end the key roles that the U.S. Trade Representative and the Treasury play in determining whether a developing country implements the worker rights conditions mandated by U.S. law.  Both USTR and Treasury, says Jerry Levinson, the American University law professor who authored the report, "have an institutional interest in relegating worker rights to a secondary status," and should be replaced by the U.S. Labor Department.  The proposal reflects a growing belief in some circles that the United States should pursue "aggressive unilateralism" to jumpstart recognition of worker rights at the multilateral WTO.

Field research and publicity.  Human rights organizations in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Mexico, and many other countries have direct contact with worker having information about factory conditions. On-site research is an indispensable check on extravagant claims of progress under corporate codes of conduct, says Jeffrey Ballinger, director of Boston-based Press for Change, who has coordinated data-collection projects in Indonesia over the years, and still does.

International labor solidarity. A century ago the American Federation of Labor, at its annual convention, declared it would "endeavor by every means within our power to cultivate fraternal feeling and interest in the welfare of all countries, to aid and encourage every movement calculated to materially, morally, and socially improve the conditions of the workers, no matter where they may be located." That commitment, often maligned or misjudged as protectionism, lives on through AFL-CIO assistance programs to struggling workers on every continent. Labor movements in Canada and Europe are doing likewise.

Human Rights Watch Clarifies Position on China

On November 15, the very same day that the Clinton Administration and China agreed on terms for China to become a member of the World Trade Organization, Human Rights Watch issued a press statement beginning: "We welcome the deal between the U.S. and China on WTO entry." (For HRFW's critique of that statement, see our previous Bulletin, at ll-19.htm.)

Nine days later, Human Rights Watch issued a longer statement, one that it noted was  intended to "clarify" its position. As before, Human Rights Watch called on Congress to "set" meaningful human rights conditions before "signing off" on China's permanent Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status. But the new statement laid down stronger conditions, mainly that China should be required to:

Under this scenario, China would get NTR status (known as MFN, or Most Favored Nation, elsewhere in the world) without adopting a single human rights reform. The proposed human rights requirements would not go into effect until after Congress had surrendered its main lever: its annual review of China's trading status.

The executive branch had already given away its strongest leverage "by sponsoring full WTO membership for China now, before reforms are carried out," says Robert Kuttner, founder and co-editor of The American Prospect. For his column "On China and the WTO," click http://www.prospect.org/columns/kuttner/bk991121.html.

In his book Protectionism, economist Jagdish Bhagwati noted that in the mid-1930s Congress "acquiesced in a classic shift of power in trade-policy initiatives and management to the executive branch." Today that power remains in the White House, although the Constitution specifically empowers Congress to regulate trade. The challenge for Congress is to reassert that role by putting its own imprint on the Clinton Administration's deal with China.

Key question: would China's membership in the WTO help eliminate the sweatshops that fester in China's booming coastal areas?  Of course not.  In fact, it would open China's doors wider to sweatshops. Stay tuned. 
Remembering a Visitor from Tanganyika

The other day Ed Marciniak, once a Chicago colleague of mine in editing a monthly called Work, mailed me the obituary of Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985. Stapled to the clipping was a note from Ed saying: "I still remember your interview with him in Work."

After all these years, I also remember that interview one evening 42 years ago, when Nyerere had dinner with my wife and me in our small apartment on Chicago's South Side. Nyerere, 35, then president of a political party in a British colony in East Africa called Tanganyika, had just come from London, where the British colonial secretary had rejected his case for Britain loosening its hold on the colony.

"It's a tragic state of affairs," Nyerere told me, "because the British government has an attitude that in effect says, 'There's no trouble in Tanganyika--no Mau Mau there or anything of that sort. So why bother with it?"
That quotation is from a yellowed clipping in an old scrapbook of mine--a page one article in the January 1957 issue of Work. Its headline, based on Nyerere's prediction,  was: "Africa: Free in 30 Years."  As I wrote in my article, Nyerere quickly added that the prediction "sounds absurd to many, especially to the white settlers in Tanganyika."

History Can Outpace Human Expectations

In fact, of course, freedom came much quicker than even Nyerere expected. In 1962, only five years after we spoke, Nyerere, head of the Tanganyika African National Union, became Prime Minister of the newly independent Tanganyika and then, three years later, after his country's union with nearby Zanzibar, President of the new state of Tanzania. He retired voluntarily in 1985.

In the article I mentioned Nyerere's early career as a teacher in a Catholic secondary school in Dar es Salaam, the capital, before he started devoting full time to politics. The obituary, from the London Tablet, emphasizes that throughout his adult life Nyerere "never cased to be a teacher by temperament, mission, and title: he was always Mwalimu." After citing his political successes and failures, and his many talents (he translated two Shakespeare plays into Swahili), the article concludes with this tribute:

"It is, nevertheless, Nyerere's moral example which made him so exceptional, the image of a President standing patiently in a queue waiting to make his confession at the cathedral in Dar: a humble, intellectually open and ascetic teacher, the true Mwalimu. Unlike almost all the other successful political leaders of his generation in Africa, he was uncorrupted either by power or wealth....Gentle, humorous, radical, persistent, he remained the icon of a truly ecumenical Christian approach to politics and human development."
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-22, December 1, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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