Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 5.                                                                   March 8, 1999 

Exposing the Health Hazards of 'Female' Jobs

"A large number of specifically female jobs are hazardous, and carry specific health problems. It is no accident that many occupational diseases affect a very high percentage of women."
So said Mamounata Cisse, a representative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), in an address she gave early this month in New York to the 43rd session of the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women.

Under globalization companies and countries are increasingly pressured to compete by cutting costs, including the cost of protecting the health and safety of women workers, an ICFTU press release points out.  (Read the full press release on the ICFTU Website at http://www.icftu.org/english/pr/1999/eprol046-990304-dd.html.)

New Code Spells Out Rights of Women Workers

The campaign against sweatshops is gaining support on many college and university campuses across the United States and Canada as more and more students realize that the garments they wear are made mostly in sweatshops, and largely by females of high school and college age.

Awareness of the vulnerability of women in the sweatshop labor force last month produced an unprecedented agreement at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The administration embraced a student proposal to add women's rights provisions to a code of conduct that will govern the manufacture of apparel and other products bearing the Wisconsin logo.

The Wisconsin agreement also included features adopted earlier by Duke and Georgetown Universities, the most important being full disclosure of factories where the university products are made.  But the women's rights provisions, first proposed by students at Columbia a year ago, were not adopted anywhere until the breakthrough at Madison.   Here's the text:


Because the overwhelming majority of apparel workers are women and because many exploitative practices are specifically targeted at women, assuring and safeguarding women's rights is of particular importance for all parties. UW-Madison will require that the following provisions be added to the code within one year. If not included within one year, UW-Madison will withdraw from participation in the code  [administered nationally by the Collegiate Licensing Company].

1. Women workers will receive equal remuneration, including benefits, equal treatment, equal evaluation of the quality of their work, and equal opportunity to fill all positions as male workers.

2. Pregnancy tests will not be a condition of employment, nor will they be demanded of employees.

3. Workers who take maternity leave will not face dismissal nor threat of dismissal, loss of seniority or deduction of wages, and will be able to return to their former employment at the same rate of pay and benefits.

4. Workers will not be forced or pressured to use contraception.

5. Workers will not be exposed to hazards, including glues and solvents,
that may endanger their safety, including their reproductive health.

6. Licensees shall provide appropriate services and accommodation to women workers in connection with pregnancy.

For more information about the agreement at Madison, visit the Website of the Madison Anti-Sweatshop Coalition at http://www.asm.wisc.edu/masc.htm. For the text of a model code drawn up by students at Columbia University, see http://www.columbia.edu/~gs228/propcode.html, posted by a student, Greg Smith.

For some previous Human Rights for Workers reports on the college campaign, see "Freshman Are Teaching Lessons in Global Ethics" and "Business' Negative Views on Codes of Conduct" in the February 19 issue at biv-4.htm and "College Students Rallying Against Sweatshops" in the January 22 issue at biv-2.htm.

Disappointment with 'White Moderates'

The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King,  Jr., in his 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" could well apply to the 1999 struggle against sweatshops.  At least Eric Brakken of the University of Wisconsin thinks so. He posts the following quotation at the end of his voluminous Internet correspondence with other collegians who are part of the national movement of Students Against Sweatshops.

"I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate

"Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection." 

Elevating Investment to Paramount Human Right

When the government of Malaysia imposed restrictions on the outflow of financial capital last September, it violated a sacred no-no of free market doctrine. It also shocked investment firms.  A fund manager at the Pacific Group in Hong Kong, Bill Kaye, recently complained to a New York Times reporter: "What right do they have to confiscate people's capital?"

What right? To protect your investment money in Malaysia, is it proper for you, a foreigner, to make an appeal to your rights?

Well, yes. The right to private property is indeed a human right. Article l7 of  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says so clearly:

1. Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
Like every right, this one needs protection.  And so U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and others are correct in seeking the adoption of new global rules to protect the rights of global investors. But like every right, this one is not absolute; it is conditioned by other human rights.

Cracking Down on Violations with Tough Sanctions

Of course Rubin and his supporters don't justify the protection of investments as a human right, not in those words. Rather, they contrive to set the right of investment  apart, raised to a high-priority category.  And they don't keep it only as an abstraction. Rather, they work to reinforce it in binding international agreements that grant special protection to international investments, even imposing tough sanctions against violations and violators. At the same time they oppose any meaningful international protection of other human rights, including the rights of working men and women.

It is a double standard long promulgated out of Washington and built into the culture of the World Bank and other multilateral organizations. Too bad that Gilbert and Sullivan are not around. They could write a hilarious operetta exposing this discriminatory fraud.

(For specifics on what is wrong with making the right of investment paramount, see an AFL-CIO executive council statement on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, at http://www.aflcio.org/publ/estatements/oct98/mai.htm.  Also, check the links provided in the Corporate Watch Website described in the next item.)

Governments Aren't the Only Guilty Ones

"Freedom from arbitrary interference or restriction by governments."  That's how The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines human rights.  It's a definition that reflects a widespread illusion that only governments have the capacity--and the power--to violate human rights.

For abundant evidence to the contrary, check the Website of Corporate Watch at http://www.corpwatch.org, especially its new report titled "Repression Inc.: The Assault on Human Rights."  There you'll find information on corporate complicity in  human rights abuses across the globe, particularly in Burma, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, and Mexico. Especially useful are the long lists of  "hot links" to a wide variety of Websites, including those of corporations and the U.S. government. 

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-5, March 8, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

Copyright 1999 

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