Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 8.                                                                      April 27, 1999 

Only One in Seven Refers to Right of Workers to Organize

Codes of Conduct and Their Anti-Union Policies

"I will fight this thing to the very end," vowed Henry Clay Frick, the industrial tycoon of a century ago. "I will never recognize the union, never, never."
Henry Clay Frick's hostility toward unions survives among the chieftains of today's business world. The same prejudice, though seldom as frankly expressed, can even be detected in what corporate codes of conduct say or fail to say.

In a survey of some 200 codes, a United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization, found what it called support for the elimination of union activities in the formal policies of the Sara Lee Knit Products (SKP) multinational. Among its "international operating principles":

"The company believes in a union-free environment except where laws and cultures require [SKP] to do otherwise,...[and] believes that employees themselves are best able to voice their concerns directly to management."
The code of another modern corporate giant, Caterpillar, stated a policy of operating "the business in such a way that employees don't feel a need for representation by unions or other third parties."  However: "Where employees have elected in favor of--or are required by law to have some form of--union representation, Caterpillar will endeavor to build a sound company-union relationship."

Another code, that of DuPont, read: "Employees shall be encouraged by lawful expression of management opinion to continue an existing no-union status...."

85% of Codes Silent on the Most Basic Worker Rights

The ILO survey found that the most common code approach on the right to organize was to ignore it.  Only about 15% of the codes studied mentioned freedom of association or collective bargaining.  "The paucity of treatment of this issue is remarkable," the ILO study commented, "given the degree of unanimity on its essential nature between employers and workers at the ILO level."

The codes did better on five other major standards:

(The text of the ILO report, made to the ILO Governing Body, can be found at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/20gb/docs/gb273/sdl-1.htm. Specifics cited above can be found by clicking item 5, Content, under Chapter III: Codes of Conduct.) 

An Update on Sweatshops in the Toy Industry

A young toy worker in China's Guangdong province wrote her older sister a letter with this complaint: "We work five hours in the morning, six in the afternoon, and another four in the evening. Every one of us who came here together [from rural Sichuan province] can't stand it anymore."

A few months later the writer of that letter met death in a fire that engulfed the Zhili toy factory, one of the 87 workers who died, trapped behind locked doors and barred windows.  Shaken by that 1993 tragedy, government officials and owners finally adopted some safety and fire prevention measures in the hundreds of toy factories that dot Guangdong province. Little else, however, has changed in them during the past six years. Most of the factories are still sweatshops.

Night Brings Golden Bear Workers Just a Short Break for Sleeping

Contrary to Chinese law, excessively long working hours--10 to 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week--still prevail. Seldom do workers get time off even on any of the seven statutory holidays provided by law.  At one factory, Dor Lok, its 1,600 workers sometimes must work far into the night, with only four hours of sleep, before resuming work on Teletubbies for Golden Bear Products in the morning.

Among the other abuses to which toy workers, most of them young women, are subjected:

Those are a few highlights from a report titled "The Working Conditions of the Toy Industry in China" issued by the Asia Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong. (A copy, which costs US$20, can be ordered from the Center at 444 Nathan Road, room 8-B, Kowloon, Hong Kong, or by emailing amrc@hk.super.net.) It provides details on the Center's interviews with five to ten workers of each of 12 Guangdong toy factories, all exporters to the world's multinationals, including Disney, Mattel, Tyco, and McDonalds. This is the latest in a series of Center reports produced for another advocacy group based in Hong Kong, the Coalition for the Charter on the Safe Production of Toys

In analyzing possibilities for progress, the report stresses that violations of human rights are bound to continue until the workers themselves win the right to organize. In the meantime, "a strong [consumer] movement that exerts pressure from outside is very important."

Codes of Conduct Called 'A PR Tool'

What about codes of conduct?  "Perhaps some [companies] have good intentions," the report says, but thus far "these codes are ineffective and the implementation of the codes is obviously full of defects."  To which May Wong, one of the Center researchers, adds in an email to HRFW: "Most of the workers were not aware of [any code]. One company posted its code on the wall side by side with the rules on punishment....The codes are a PR tool only to please consumers in the West."

(For background, check a 1996 HRFW Bulletin at bu2.htm and a supporting document at campaign.htm.)

China Provides Data on Exploitation of Shoe Workers

An illustration of how the global economy exploits working women and men has come from an unusual source: Zhu Rongji, prime minister of the People's Republic of China. In a talk at MIT in mid-April, Zhu said that of the $120 retail cost of a pair of athletic shoes, only $2 goes to the Chinese workers who assemble them.

Zhu's revelation is a welcome addition to scarce data on the unit labor costs of overseas production. Thus far, such statistics have been publicized only by worker rights advocates. The National Labor Committee, for example, has calculated that the direct labor cost to assemble a $90 pair of Nike sneakers is approximately $1.20. (For more wage data, check the Committee's Website at http://www.nlcnet.org/nike/wagememo.htm.)

Only 2% of Price of Shoes Goes to Shoe Workers

Thus, the wages of women making sneakers amount to 2% of their retail price,  according to Zhu, or 1.3%, according to the National Labor Committee. Either way, overseas workers earn so little that just a penny added to each dollar of unit labor costs could increase a worker's pay by more than 50%. Or a factory could upgrade labor standards in other ways that economists often falsely claim developing countries cannot "afford"--like installing ventilation equipment to protect workers against poisonous fumes.

Zhu presented his analysis in trying to explain China's high trade deficit with the United States (briefly, China imports the components for shoes [though not from the U.S.] and only assembles them). But the Prime Minister would do well to reflect on why China's workers do so poorly and on what China might do to improve their lot in the global economy.

Here's some free advice to him. As part of its campaign to enter the World Trade Organization, China should embrace the idea of the WTO's adopting a "social clause" with enforceable labor standards. That would be in China's own interest. I developed the reason why that's so in the summer 1998 issue of the journal China Rights Forum. The article is reproduced in these pages at wtoprc.htm

Vietnam's Freedom: a Cause That's Very Much Alive

Both events will call for the release of all persons still being held in Vietnam's prisons for political or religious reasons. Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, now under house arrest in Saigon after his release from prison last year, told a German reporter this month that, to his own knowledge, he left behind more than 100 prisoners of conscience, including Catholics, Protestants, and Buddhists. The government, after unsuccessfully pressuring  Que to go into exile, still keeps police watching him night and day, but he has vowed to stay in Vietnam. Though previously jailed twice for his human rights activities, he has told a reporter: "Certainly I continue to do my work, work for the people and for my country." 

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-8, April 27, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

Back to Human Rights for Workers Home Page
A short cut to a list of previous Bulletins in 1998, 1997, and 1996