Vol. IV, Bulletin No.11. June 2, 1999
Finally, a Private Initiative After Government Effort Fails
New Code of Conduct Meant Especially for China
The U.S. government will pursue "a new and vigorous American program to support those in China working to advance the cause of human rights and democracy." An element in that program will be "the development with American business leaders of a voluntary set of principles for business activity in China."
Those were the words of President Clinton on May 26, 1994, at a press conference announcing a plan for a code of conduct specifically covering U.S. business in China. But his plan never got off the ground.
Now, five years later, comes a new code for China, this one called "U.S. Principles for Human Rights of Workers in China." It is the work, not of the government, but of leading human rights groups, and has already been endorsed by three major corporations with businesses in China: Levi Strauss, Mattel, and Reebok. Through their contractors and subcontractors, the three multinationals now provide jobs for more than 100,000 workers in China, mostly women.
A campaign to sign up other companies was launched at a May 26 Washington press conference chaired by Bama Athreya, director of Asia programs for the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund.
Focusing on Some China-Specific Responsibilities
The 500-word code is in many respects similar to other codes adopted in recent years, but, apart from being designed especially for China, it has two major principles expressing special commitments:
The code also states: "We shall undertake to promote the following freedoms among our employees and the employees of our suppliers,...including the right to form unions and to bargain collectively; freedom of expression, and freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention."
- "Our facilities and suppliers shall prohibit from their premises any police or military presence designed to prevent workers from exercising their rights."
- "Employees working in our facilities and those of our suppliers shall not face discrimination in hiring, remuneration, or promotion based on labor, political or religious activity, or on involvement in demonstrations, past records of arrests or internal exile for peaceful protest, or membership in organizations committed to non-violent social or political change."
Such provisions place upon U.S. companies the responsibility to change their own corporate "cultures" and the customs of "suppliers"--most of them companies from Korea and Taiwan whose managers actually run the Chinese factories that make the products bearing Mattel, Reebok, and other American brand names.
China's authoritarian system does pose some serious obstacles. These obstacles might be minimized if foreign employers in China adopt joint strategies. In the opinion of some experts familiar with the labor scene in China, companies are not taking advantage of the (admittedly limited) leeway they do have to respect the basic rights of workers.
Support from Amnesty International and Other Human Rights Groups
The International Labor Rights Fund and another non-governmental group, Global Exchange, took the lead in developing the code. Amnesty International USA, Human Rights in China, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights are among the other human rights groups that endorse it.
The code puts the burden of monitoring implementation on the companies that sign it. Signers agree to provide an annual report to a new "Human Rights for Workers in China Working Group," comprised of representatives of human rights organizations.
(For information about the new code check the International Labor Rights Fund Website at http://www.laborrights.org/d-projects/china/index.html. The three companies that signed it have their own corporate codes:
--Levi Strauss & Co. at http://www.levistrauss.com/about/code.html
--Mattel Inc.at http://www.mattel.com/corporate/company/responsibility/gmp.asp
--Reebok International at http://www.reebok.com/human_rights.html.)
Pluses and Minuses of This New Initiative
It is easy to be skeptical about this latest addition to the growing list of corporate codes. Indeed, I was skeptical when I was asked to endorse it as editor of Human Rights for Workers. After reflecting on the pluses and minuses, I agreed. Here's why.
Think of the many millions of men and women--and especially women--in China's foreign-owned export industries who work in an environment in which sweatshops flourish and bonded labor is common. Whom can they rely on to achieve reforms?
That leaves the foreign corporations and their suppliers (also mostly foreign) whose factories now dot much of China's landscape. Fundamentally, they--the corporations--are the ones responsible for what happens in their workplaces. They are the ones that must be held responsible.
- Not on the official "unions" of China, which are puppets of the Communist Party.
- Not on the Chinese government. It has made a pact to lure foreign investors under a development policy that turns workers into sacrificial lambs. As a result, China's own labor laws and regulations are seldom enforced.
- Not on U.S. labor laws, of course, even though millions are de facto members of the U.S. labor force since they work full time making toys, garments, rugs, shoes, and other products for American customers.
- Not on the UN's International Labor Organization, even though China is a member and theoretically bound by its "core labor standards."
- Not on the worker rights provisions of U.S. trade laws, which are weak and weakly enforced.
Can they be persuaded, cajoled, and pressured to accept that responsibility? Well, some have, and they should be held to it. Others should be persuaded, cajoled, and pressured to do likewise. But, let's face it, that expectation may turn out to be unrealistic.
Serious Questions about Implementing a Code in China
In the corporations that endorsed the new code and in those that will, there are undoubtedly people sincerely dedicated to implementing it. It is an instrument they can use to support their up-hill efforts. But:
The more practical questions you raise, the more you fear that the new code might have little effect, as was the case with the Sullivan Principles for U.S. companies doing business in apartheid-torn South Africa. The man who devised those Principles in 1977, the Rev. Leon Sullivan, found a decade later that they were ineffective, and called for all U.S. companies to withdraw from South Africa.
- Are the home offices of U.S. corporations willing to do what is necessary to change the habits of their own overseas managers and the managers of their contractors and subcontractors? Will they launch re-training programs up and down the line?
- Do they even know who and where all their many subcontractors are?
- Will they settle for showcase improvements at this or that plant, impressive to the media but to very few workers?
- Will they let outsiders verify compliance through random spot-checking?
- How will they deal with contrary policies and practices of the Chinese government and the Communist Party of China? Will the corporations get together and develop a common strategy for coping?
- Will they have the practical support of the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in China and the U.S. government in Washington?
- Will China's volatile political climate offer a reason, or an excuse, for deferring action on the reforms that the code requires?
Human Rights vs. Sovereignty: Conflicting Visions
Has the war over Yugoslavia doomed national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs as the guiding principles of international relations?
Yes, says Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic. He sees the war as a historic turning point: respect for the rights of people is now becoming more important than respect for the rights of the nation-state. In his view, the struggle against the "genocidal regime" of Slobodan Milosovic--"probably the first war that has not been waged in the name of 'national interests,' but rather in the name of principles and values"--is an important precedent for the future.
His vision of the 21st century world is one in which nations will be guided not so much by selfish national interests as by "a universal or global respect for human rights, by universal civic equality and the rule of law, and by a global civil society."Havel presented this case at length in an address that he gave to the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa on April 29. It is reprinted as the lead article, titled "Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State," in the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, and available on line at http://www.nybooks.com.China's Rulers: Long Live Sovereignty!
In Beijing, meanwhile, the regime made abundantly clear, in Chinese and in English, that for China human rights can never replace national sovereignty. Among the authorities that the media cited for the official position was Professor Liu Wenzong of Foreign Affairs College. "If a country has no sovereignty," he said, "it will be a colony." According to a May 14 report of Xinhua (the government's news agency), he charged that the human-rights justification for the NATO intervention in Jugoslavia is a cover for aggression.
On May 26 Xinhua drove home the same theme under the title "No More of 'Human Rights Above State Sovereignty'." "This is indeed a logic of gangsters," the lengthy editorial charged. "Its producers are actually trying to find excuses for the United States to bully the weak nations by sheer strength, to wantonly interfere in their internal affairs, and implement its gunboat diplomacy in the world."
Which vision of world politics should prevail in the 21st century--the human rights ideal articulated by Havel or the national interest realism articulated by China? More to the point, which vision will prevail?
The odds strongly favor national interest realism, calibrated to the specific policies promoted by national leaders. After all, it was the U.S. Secretary of State Albright herself who, with U.S. policy on China in mind, said just a couple of years ago that U.S. foreign policy should not be "held hostage" to human rights.
Diary: Why Me, Lord, Why Me?
Next month I'll be 78. Yep, 78 years old. Though I can't run up stairs as fast as I used to, I'm still in pretty good shape and in pretty good health. I sometimes wonder how come I made it this far and this well.
Genes, maybe. But good genes didn't save those who died in World War II. In my 42 months as a U.S. Army soldier, the closest I got to the shooting war was on a military airbase in the Azores, the Atlantic islands scattered far off the coast of the European mainland. I still remember once seeing a photo of an American infantryman sprawled dead on Normandy sands and asking myself, "Why not me, Lord?"
I've escaped other dangers unscathed, at least physically, in careers that spanned six decades and four continents. And now here I am basking happily in a peaceful northern Virginia suburb. With our bills paid mostly by Social Security and a Foreign Service annuity, my wife and I have all the comforts we need, and more. We're blessed with four children, all grown, all healthy, all doing well. What have I done to deserve this?
Technically But Not Really Retired
As "retired" persons, my wife and I don't travel as much as we could because there's so much to do right here at home. Since both of us are writers, we can reach out to the world through our work, and people from all over the world reach back to us. Dzung has written two books in her native Vietnamese, memoirs that are best-sellers in Vietnamese communities throughout North America and Europe. Me, I devote most of my time to this Website and to outside writing on the same kind of concerns that you find covered here.
At heart, my life before this--particularly as a labor attaché in the Foreign Service and as a reporter, writer, researcher, and editor concentrating on worker issues--has been a kind of apprenticeship for what I am doing now. To my good fortune, many of the jobs I've held in my life were not really "work." That is, I didn't hold those jobs just because of their paychecks and benefits. I enjoyed what I did because I felt what I did was useful.
Now I enjoy pursuing the same concerns without a paycheck but still drawing on benefits earned and skills learned over the course of six decades. Not a bad deal.
Why me, Lord? I don't know. I don't deserve this.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-11, June 2, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
email@example.com. (Send e-mail)
Back to Home Page
A short cut to a list of previous Bulletins in 1999, 1998, 1997, and 1996