Vol. IV, Bulletin No.10.                                                                   May 21, 1999 

Unions Trying to 'Bring Good Things to Life' at General Electric

240 Million Votes Favoring a GE Code of Conduct

At a meeting of 1,300 General Electric shareholders in Cleveland last month, a young Malaysian worker stood at a microphone and charged that management at his GE plant in Malaysia:

The worker, Sazali Dahlan, an engineering assistant at a GE plant in southern Malaysia, was arguing that General Electric needed to adopt an international code of conduct that "recognizes our basic human rights and our right to freedom of association."

GE Charged with 'Global Indifference to Worker Rights'

Specifically, he was asking for the meeting to adopt a shareholders resolution proposed by a coalition of 14 American unions representing workers in GE's American plants. In the words of a leaflet distributed at the meeting, "Malaysia is just one example of GE's global indifference to worker rights," and therefore its workers need a global code guaranteeing "basic rights to join a union and to be free from discrimination, intimidation, and forced labor."

In the count that followed, the resolution lost by a large margin: 8% for, 92% against.  But the 8% represented 240 million shares. It was a moral victory for a union initiative that may become a model of a new way that unions can press for international worker rights.

General Electric, whose motto is "We Bring Good Things to Life," makes electrical thermostats in Johor, Malaysia. Last year, instead of recognizing the new Electrical Industry Workers Union at the plant, management turned to the government and got a ruling that gave GE a "legal" way to stifle the union. The plant, the government said, doesn't really belong to the "electrical" industry at all.

"GE got the government to declare the plant to be in the electronics sector even though it has always [since 1982] been an electrical production facility," Sazali told the GE shareholders. "Malaysian labor laws restrict rights to form independent or national unions in the electronics industry."
Here are some points that Sazali was unable to cover in his brief presentation:  The electrical industry has a well established national union; the electronic industry does not.  The Malaysian government forbids unions to organize outside the separate industrial categories arbitrarily set by the government.  And some 180,000 workers in the electronics sector are deprived of unions because of collusion between an authoritarian government and authoritarian (mostly American) multinationals.

An International Day of Solidarity of GE workers is planned for Memphis, Tennessee, on June 25, followed the next day by a mass demonstration at a local GE plant. For details, check the Website of the AFL-CIO International Union of Electrical Workers, particularly a press release at http://www.iue.org/031799.htm.

Falsehoods about the Cost of Ending Sweatshops

The explosion of press interest in sweatshops is clear from the following figures, obtained from a Nexis search:

A contribution to the 1999 totals is a letter to the editor headed "Sweatshop Pay Could Easily Be Raised" appearing in the May 24 issue of Business Week. It identifies me as "Editor, Human Rights for Workers, Reston, Va."  Thank you, Business Week.

What Prompted My Letter about Sweatshops

Some background: I've long been irked by economists and others who shed tears about how terrible a financial burden it would be for U.S. consumers if the women who work for us in global sweatshops got decent treatment. So I was not exactly thrilled by a May 3 Business Week article that, in various ways, expressed concern about what "the economic toll would be if anti-sweatshop efforts lifted prices."  It called a living wage "the most costly demand."

That was enough for me to email Business Week the following letter, published with only a few minor changes (chiefly removing the bracketed sentences):

In an otherwise perceptive article ("Sweatshop Reform" - 5/3/99), you raise fears about the dangers of increasing the wages of sweatshop workers.  But where is the research supporting these scares?

During his visit to MIT in mid-April, China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, said that of the $120 retail cost of a pair of athletic shoes made in China, only $2 goes to the Chinese workers who assemble them. [Check the NYTimes story of April 15, 1999 by Joseph Kahn.]  The New York-based National Labor Committee has calculated the direct labor cost to assemble a $90 pair of Nike sneakers to be approximately $1.20. [Check its website at http://www.nclnet.org/nike/wagememo.htm.] 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, these overseas workers earn so little that just a PENNY added to each dollar of unit labor costs could increase the worker's pay by more than 50%.

Dispute these figures, if you will.  But dispute them with first-hand research of the wage costs in a given unit of production, not on the basis of industry-wide averages of hourly compensation costs and productivity indexes drawn from national accounts. These figures, even if drawn from reliable sources, do not reveal how little a sweatshop worker earns for each garment, cap, doll, or toy she makes.

No wonder "leaders of low-page countries argue" against a standard requiring a decent wage.  Rather than pricing themselves out of the market, as they claim, it would deprive them and their business collaborators of one way to swindle workers, most of them vulnerable young women.

Don't be surprised if that letter sounds a bit familiar to you. I covered some of the same facts in the April 27 Bulletin article (at 4-27.htm) titled "China Provides Data on Exploitation of Shoe Workers."

This fundamental point is worth emphasizing once more: reliable research on the situation of sweatshop workers is skimpy, and that's especially true of how much (really, how little) of the retail price of sweatshop products goes to the women who make them. 

New ILO Convention:

Will It Improve the Odds for Ending Child Labor?

More than 3,000 employer, worker, and government delegates from some 150 countries will gather in Geneva in June for the annual conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Their main item of business: adopting a new "Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor."

In defining "the worst forms" of child labor, the convention in its proposed text would take specific aim at:

(For the English text of the proposed convention, visit the ILO Website at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/10ilc/ilc87/rep-iv2b.htm.)

Weighing Convention's Likely Impact on the Most Abused Children

What difference will the new convention make in the lives of the millions of boys and girls now subjected to those abusive conditions?

Bonded labor and some of the other abuses it would target are already outlawed in India and Pakistan, for example, but they flourish anyway.  And the ILO itself already has numerous conventions against child labor, including two comprehensive ones adopted in 1937 and l973, which are widely violated, or ignored. The problem is that the ILO has no enforcement mechanism with teeth--nothing akin to the sanctions that the World Trade Organization applies to violations of intellectual property rights. The ILO relies solely on publicity and persuasion.

No wonder that child labor is growing in the world. This expansion is confirmed by  Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian who has been campaigning against child labor (or what he calls child servitude) for nearly 20 years, first in India and South Asia and now throughout the world. He originated and led last year's Global March against Child Labor, in which child laborers on every continent held demonstrations dramatizing what Satyarthi calls "the curse on the face of mankind."

A New Force: the Global March Against Child Labor

The Global March didn't come to a halt last year. Amazingly, it has built up a coalition of supporting organizations in about 100 countries, and has now grown into a vast global non-governmental organization, with its headquarters in New Delhi and secretariat members in key countries, including the United States.

Satyarthi and his allies are already in Geneva lobbying to broaden the scope of the proposed new convention.  Their main objective is to add "work that systematically deprives the child access to basic education" to the list of the worst forms of child labor. The danger, however, is that even the present text will be watered down--for example, to exclude the commercial agricultural industry, which in the United States still legally harbors the worst forms of child labor.

If not watered down significantly, the new Convention may well make a difference to many girls and boys now victimized. Because of public pressure, hopefully more governments will be shamed into penalizing those who commit crimes against children and into implementing universal primary education for all children, including migrants in American commercial agriculture. Hopefully.

Looking Beyond Words, Words, and More Words

What gives reason for real hope is not so much the text of the convention, nor the rhetoric of the Presidents and Prime Ministers who will bestow fulsome praises on it. No, what inspires hope is that the Global March Against Child Labor and its many allies, individually and collectively, will remain active on the world scene to ensure that the new convention will have an impact where it matters: among the millions of young children who now are now at work instead of in school.

The cause is just, and it can prevail--if it gains enough support, not just in words but in deeds.

Here are various way to contact the Global March Against Child Labor. Website: http://www.globalmarch.org. E-mail: childhood@globalmarch.org. U.S. representative in secretariat: Kimberly Bhesania, kbhesania@hotmail.com.

*   *   *

Exploding Child Labor Myths: an Indian's Insights

Kailash Satyarthi, a striking figure in a white robe, was in Washington earlier this month. Between appointments at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, he talked to and with a small group of us on May 14.  I was real glad to see him again and to find him still exuding the charisma and the wisdom that impressed me when I first met him some years ago.

From personally witnessing the plight of boys and girls victimized by bonded labor and other harsh forms of exploitation, Satyarthi is unexcelled in being able to explode myths about child labor, including some repeated by distinguished academics and international organizations. He is especially good at debunking the facile rationale that "poverty causes child labor." Not so, he says. "Exploitation of poverty causes child labor."

In my writings I have frequently made use of  the statistics he uses to illustrate that child labor promotes adult unemployment and perpetuates poverty. He gave us an update for India: In 1947, when India gained independence, it had 10 million child workers and 10 million unemployed older persons. Now it has 70 million child workers and 70 million jobless.

Bonded Child Labor: Unending Work to Pay Off an Adult's Debt

Satyarthi and his co-workers are frequently harassed and even arrested for their activities to liberate children from bondage.  Ironically, "Not even one person has been arrested for holding children in bondage."  Children in bondage, he added, are forced to work 12 hours and more a day trying to pay off debts of a family member. Indeed the debt may originally have been a small one, only a few rupees first lent to a great-great-grandfather, that over the generations mushroomed because of extortionate interest rates.

One of the biggest challenges is to garner the support of powerful international organizations now restrained by member governments that tolerate the worst forms of child labor. Even UNICEF has declined to join the Global March.  And, according to Satyarthi, children are enlisted as forced labor in some World Bank "development" projects in India, Nepal, and Pakistan.

Satyarthi is full of sensible ideas that cry for implementation. For example, he favors "debt relief" for impoverished nations, but only if it is linked to a firm commitment to building up primary education. The levers to end child labor are many; they need only to be pulled. 

Keeping Up with a Vast Grassroots Movement

Despite increased coverage by the media, the grassroots movement against sweatshops has become so wide and diverse that it's impossible to keep up with all the happenings.  For this you have to look beyond the general media. You'll find a partial guide on sources in a HRFW information section on sweatshops and child labor (see cl.htm).

I should add a special plug for the Campaign for Labor Rights with its "labor alerts," which are sent out by email to subscribers and posted on its Website for the public. Its May 14 posting, "Nike, Reebok and Freedom of Association," is a current example of up-to-date reporting, combined with suggestions on what you can do to help. Check http://www.summersault.com/~agj/clr/alerts/nikereebokfreedomofassociation.html.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-10, May 21, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1999
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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