Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 21: November 20, 1997 

[The Bear is Crying]

Protesting Blood-Stained Toys Made in China

'Mommy, Are We Killing Chinese Workers?'

A parade of men in sober business suits appeared before the Truth and Conciliation Hearings in Johannesburg, South Africa, early this month. The chief executives of the nation's biggest corporations and banks lined up to apologize for their support of apartheid over the last century.

Anglo-American, a huge conglomerate, expressed regret that it had done so little for its black workers. Mining executives admitted that exploiting racial and tribal divisions helped cut labor costs. One sugar company executive was questioned sharply about the killing of an anti-apartheid activist on the property of his company and its cooperation with security police, As an article in the 11/14/97 New York Times explained:

"Very few executives openly opposed apartheid until the mid-1980s, when sanctions began crippling the economy. Meanwhile, many companies helped the Government evade trade sanctions, thwart the oil embargo and the United Nations arms embargo so effectively that the country built a powerful arms industry and even nuclear weapons."
Fast-forward to 2017: How Will They Explain Themselves Then?

I wonder what American corporate executives will have to say 20 years from today about their conduct in the People's Republic of China, especially about

In retrospect, corporate executives may seek to excuse themselves by blaming the Clinton administration's "constructive engagement" policy, but they would be trying to disown a policy that has their fingerprints all over it. So I can imagine the bright grandson of a multinational business executive asking:

"Grandpa, what did you do in China? Did you let Chinese workers go to jail?"

Awakening Consciences Today About Today's Realities

The crass exploitation of the most vulnerable infects all China's huge export industries, but the fate of workers in its thriving toy industry is especially scandalous. There some 1.3 million workers, mostly young women, are imperilled by fires, poisonous fumes, and other hazardous conditions in makeshift factories producing for the world market. The worst disaster occurred just four years ago, when a toy factory fire in the Shenzhen export processing zone killed 87 workers and injured more than 60, almost all young women from rural areas.

In Hong Kong several private organizations, grouped together in a coalition for the safe production of toys, have long alerted the world to what is going on. One of the first Bulletins featured their illustration (shown above) and an article titled "Our Children Don't Need Blood-Stained Toys." But the problems of China's toy workers persist. This year the Hong Kong groups are sending the same alert to the industry and its customers.

So the moral issues won't wait for a Truth Commission 10 or 20 years hence. They are pressing right now for China-connected bankers, corporate executives, shareholders, and consumers. I can imagine an Internet-connected American child holding a made-in-China toy and wondering: "Mommy, are we killing Chinese workers?"

(For more information about what is happening to workers in China, contact the Asia Monitor Resource Center in Hong Kong, whose email address is: amrc@HK.Super.Net.)

Breathing Poison in a Nike Factory in Vietnam

Let's say that while gluing soles on Nike shoes, you're exposed, day in and day out, to irritating fumes. Prolonged exposure to the fumes are poisonous and can cause serious health problems, like damaging your liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, but you don't know that. Still, when you start to have trouble breathing, you ask to be transferred to a department free of chemicals. Your request is denied, as is that of a co-worker who can't get rid of her skin rashes.

Would you consider the conditions at your factory "superior"?

A Nike official made the "superior" claim about a Nike factory in Vietnam even after publication of a damaging audit revealing the serious health problems faced there by some 9,000 workers. The audit, conducted by the Ernst & Young accounting firm, found that toulene, a carcinogen, polluted the air at different sites in the factory at six to 177 times the amount allowed by Vietnamese government regulations.

In a page one article headlined "Nike Shoe Plant in Vietnam Is Called Unsafe for Workers," the New York Times article (11/8/97) said that the audit "painted a dismal picture of thousands of young women, mostly under age 25, laboring 10 1/2 hours a day, six days a week in excessive heat and noise and in foul air, for slightly more than $10 a week." According to Nike itself, the factory, located in Bien Hoa near Saigon and operated by a Korean contractor, is one of its most modern plants.

An Audit That Looks Different in the Sunlight

The audit, meant for internal Nike use only, was obtained in Vietnam by Dara O'Rourke, an environmental consultant of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. In connection with those duties, O'Rourke visited the Bien Hoa plant three times, most recently in October. In a report of his own, "Smoke from a Hired Gun," he criticizes the Ernst & Young findings as being too lenient, and lists a series of workplaces hazards and labor law violations that the accounting firm's audit overlooked.

Workers have staged several wildcat strikes at the plant during the past two years. After threatening strikers with discharge, management identified ring-leaders and treated them "very badly until they quit," according to O'Rourke. The plant has a union, but a worker told O'Rourke that its leaders "were selected and paid" by management.

(The full texts of the Ernst & Young audit and O'Rourke's own critique are available at To read the New York Times story, as well as other reports on Nike's labor conditions, check Further, The Oregonian has just published a perceptive series of articles on Nike, available at

U.S. Agency Preparing Aid for U.S. Business in Vietnam

Meanwhile, back in Washington, a U.S. government agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam on Nov. 5 initialed a draft bilateral agreement on trade and investment designed, among other things, to make OPIC financing and insurance programs available to U.S. businesses in Vietnam. Before that happens, however, the U.S. government must make two "determinations": that Vietnam permits free emigration and that it is making progress in the protection of international worker rights. How will Clinton Administration officials manage to ignore the truth to make such determinations? They'll find a way, unless there's a Congressional outcry.

You can learn more about OPIC's various activities by checking its Web page at For a report by a conservative source criticizing OPIC as a "fount of corporate welfare," check the Cato Institute Web page at

A Radically Different Approach to Globalization

"The denial or the limitation of human rights--as for example the right to religious freedom, the right to share in the building of society, the freedom to organize and to form unions or to take initiatives in economic matters--do these not impoverish the human person as much as, if not more than, the deprivation of material goods? And is development which does not take into account the full affirmation of these rights really development on the human level?...

"Hence at this point we have to ask ourselves if the sad reality of today might not be, at least in part, the result of a too narrow idea of development, that is, a mainly economic one."

That indictment of obsessively pursuing economic goals could apply to the global scene today. But those words were written a decade ago by Pope John Paul II in an Encyclical on International Social Concerns. Still, his message can be read as a forewarning of the dangerous consequences arising from what he calls "sinful" drives, above all "the all-consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power."

He does not condemn globalization (a word that he doesn't use). Rather, he sees the "new goods and resources" developed by technology and trade as "a gift from God." The proper response in this new world of interdependence, the Pope writes, is to be inspired by a moral and social attitude--the virtue of solidarity.

This virtue, he emphasizes, "is not a feeling of vague compasion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and perservering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all."

Seeing Foreign Workers as Our 'Neighbors'

Specifically: "Solidarity helps us to see the 'other'--whether a person, people, or nation--not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our 'neighbor'...."

On its 10th anniversary, this encyclical, known as Sollicitudo Rei Socialis in Latin, is a strong reminder not only of how much global policies today violate solidarity but also of our individual responsibility to practice that virtue. This is how the Pope emphasizes personal responsibility:

"Therefore, political leaders and citizens of rich countries, considered as individuals, especially if they are Christians, have the moral obligation, to the degree of each one's responsibility, to take into consideration in personal decisions and decisions of government...this interdependence which exists between their conduct and the poverty and underdevelopment of so many millions of people."
The Vatican has a Web page at where you should be able to find this encyclical under its Latin title, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. I located it once, but failed later. I will insert the full URL when I get it.


Exercising Personal Responsibility: How?

For an article and a talk that I am writing, I would like to cite some concrete examples of personal initiatives taken by people to demonstrate their concern over a moral evil like the exploitation of women and children. Returning a made-in-China toy or a pair of Nike shoes to a retailer with a note of protest? Sponsoring a resolution at a union or a Chamber of Commerce meeting? Writing and phoning a Senator to encourage a vote for legislation banning child labor imports?

The ideal portrayed in the Encyclical on International Social Concerns is splendid, but how is it made real in the here and now? Send me examples, please, based on your personal experience or that of someone you know.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail to

 Bulletin No. II-21: November 20, 1997


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