Vol. IV, Bulletin No.16. September 6, 1999
Business Boosts International Labor Organization
Never before in its 80-year history has the International Labor Organization been as popular as it is today.
In June President Clinton addressed the ILO conference in Geneva, the first sitting U.S. President to do so. Among his other pro-ILO efforts, Clinton promised to ask Congress for $25 million to support its new declaration on core labor standards and $10 million to give U.S. bilateral assistance to governments seeking to raise those standards.
Even more precedent-making is the strong support being rendered to the ILO and its principles by U.S. business, specifically by the United States Council for International Business, which has a membership of over 300 multinational companies, law firms, and business associations. That support is detailed in the Council's August 1999 update on its international labor activities. Highlights quoted from that report:
Aim: To Sidetrack Proposals for a Labor Link in Trade Agreements
- At the ILO conference this June, "U.S. Council leadership played a critical role in the development and unanimous adoption of a convention and recommendation addressing the worst forms of child labor....For the first time in history, the U.S. employer delegate voted in favor of adoption of [an ILO] convention."
- Prior to the conference itself, "Michael Semrau (Coca-Cola), U.S. employer representative on the [ILO's] child labor committee, had worked closely with U.S. government and worker counterparts to develop a U.S. tripartite consensus....Once in Geneva, his leadership was critical to formulating an international consensus on an effective, ratifiable instrument."
- "Ed Potter, U.S. employer delegate to the conference and USCIB international labor counsel, also played a crucial role in achieving U.S. consensus....He has participated in an extensive review of U.S. law and practice at the state and federal level, and determined that ratification of the convention will not entail any changes in U.S. law and practice."
Why this strong support for the new ILO convention? "The USCIB believes that strengthening the ILO to deal with egregious violations of labor practices serves as an alternative to pressures on corporations to develop codes of conduct. It should also remove pressure on the U.S. governments to use trade agreements (e.g., "fast track," WTO) to deal with labor standards. Speedy ratification of this ILO convention on a multilateral basis is therefore in U.S. business' best interests."See http://www.uscib.org/news/ilau0899.htm for the Council's international labor affairs update.At the 1996 ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (which, unlike the ILO, is composed only of government members), trade ministers added to the ILO's stature by declaring: "The International Labor Organization (ILO) is the competent body to set and deal with these [international recognized core labor] standards, and we affirm our support for its work in promoting them." Translation: this is none of the WTO's business.
At the WTO ministerial conference in Seattle starting November 30, many (probably most) governments will again seek to maintain that same position.
'Too Many Have Been Left Behind,' Cardinal Says"Our [national] prosperity is not being widely shared. Too many have been left behind, and the gap in family income continues to widen....This trend is part of the reason why we need a strong, active, democratic labor movement."So says Cardinal Roger Mahony, Archbishop of Los Angeles, in a Labor Day statement he has issued as chairman of the domestic policy committee of the United States Catholic Conference.
Cardinal Mahony praises the American labor movement for its "role in the passage of Social Security, minimum wage, earned income credit (EITC), and other laws designed to protect all workers and their families." He points out that "the unions fight hard to maintain [these legal benefits]," even though "most union members have labor contracts that far exceed the minimum benefits established by these laws."
After calling attention to the need for "creating a comprehensive program for insurance against illness, disability, unemployment, and old age," Mahony says that the Church "asks Catholics to think about public policy proposals not only from the perspective of their individual or family self-interest but also from the perspective of the average and low-wage workers and their families."See http://www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/laborday99.htm for the full text of the Cardinal's Labor Day statement.Human Rights Is Our Business: Multinational Chief
Why would the head of a large multinational corporation publicly call upon the President of Indonesia to release a prominent labor organizer from prison?
Paul Fireman, president, chairman, and CEO of Reebok International, got involved in doing just that early this year. At the suggestion of Bill Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International/USA, Fireman wrote--and publicized--a letter to President B.J. Habibie urging the release of Dita Sari, a 26-year-old activist who was serving a five-year sentence for non-violent activities defending worker rights.
In an article titled "Business Must Speak Up For Human Rights" published in the August 19 Asian Wall Street Journal, Fireman explained his involvement this way:
Dita Sari walked out of prison a free woman on July 5, thanks to a broad campaign of trade unions, human rights groups, human rights groups, and others. (For background, see She Refused To Be Beaten Into Submission.)
- "I did it because Ms. Dita Sari's imprisonment made it difficult for Reebok to honor our commitment to respect the human rights, including the right to organize, of the nearly 30,000 workers in Indonesia who produce our footwear."
- "I also did it because I thought voices from the business community could make an important difference in the campaign to bring about Ms. Dita Sari's release."
In his article, which was not printed in other regional editions of the Wall Street Journal, Fireman wrote: "The right of workers to organize is a fundamental right....The Indonesian workers who produce Reebok products cannot truly be free to organize and bargain collectively while their representatives are imprisoned or the subject of government harassment."
Why More Business Executives Need To Get Involved
He also argued for a systematic involvement of corporations in promoting the human rights of workers. The basic case he made was this:
"Multinational companies should use their voices to promote respect for human rights in the places they do business. The factories that make the products of multinational corporations--apparel, toys, footwear, electronic goods--employ millions of workers. Keeping these workers employed is important to the governments where these products are made, and I believe that governments have an interest in listening when the multinational business community speaks out about workplace issues.
"I do not accept the argument that raising these issues with governments where our products are made, and where our brand reputations are on the line, is improperly interfering in another country's internal affairs."
My comment: In the present political environment of the U.S. and other leading countries, a halt to the global expansion of sweatshops is very unlikely without some concerted leadership from the business community. So any expression like Fireman's is a hopeful sign. Not that pressure from unions, human rights groups, and other NGOs has become superfluous. To the contrary. It's more necessary than ever.
Remembering Lane Kirkland, Freedom Fighter
Upon learning of the death of Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO last month, Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, issued a tribute lauding him as a leader who "stood with workers wherever they were oppressed and joined in their struggle against any and all tyrants."
Kirkland "helped shape the history of the century through his unstinting support for freedom of association in Poland,...the fight to bring down apartheid in South Africa, and the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship," Jordan said. Recalling Kirkland as an articulate and forceful voice against both Communism and the "free market" dogma, Jordan cited this statement by Kirkland:"Both have something in common. Both can atomize society by reducing humans to the level of isolated survivors. Both can be lethal to the institutions of civil society that make life tolerable to ordinary people. And both bear equal responsibility for advancing the dehumanizing and anti-democratic notion that working people must endure an ongoing period of great hardship and sacrifice as a necessary prelude to the utopian realm of freedom."May you rest in peace, Brother Lane Kirkland.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-16, September 6, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
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