Vol. III, Bulletin No. 12.                                                                   June 15, 1998 

U.S.'s Seamy Labor Record Exposed

Last year 299 trade unionists around the world were murdered for standing up for their rights, 156 of them in Colombia alone.  So reports the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in its latest annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights.

The United States has no victims on that list of 299 teachers, textile workers, and other men and women killed for their labor activism.  And yet the United States record in respecting worker rights is far, far from perfect.  The ICFTU report makes that very clear. It spells out the "inadequacy" of U.S. labor legislation and its enforcement, particularly the failure "to protect workers when the employer is determined to destroy or prevent union representation."

A few highlights from that indictment:

'Large Segments of the American Work Force' Denied Basic Rights

As a result of prolonged delays and the high cost of seeking justice in the courts, "the right to join trade unions and participate in collective bargaining is in practice denied to large segments of the American work force."  Moreover, because of a shortage of labor inspectors and "inadequate penalties for employers who violate the law, " the government provides "inadequate" enforcement of labor standards covering, wages, hours, child labor, and workplace safety.

The report criticizes a few corporations by name.  It includes the case history of a prolonged labor dispute at a San Francisco subsidiary of  the telecommunications company, Sprint, to illustrate Sprint's "long-standing company policy of remaining 'union free'."

The ICFTU released its survey in Geneva at the International Labor Conference on June 6 at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the adoption of ILO convention 87, which gives international recognition to the right of workers (and employers) to form and join their own organizations.  (More in next item.)
(The ICFTU's 1998 Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights is available at http://www.icftu.org/english/turights/survey1998/etusurvey1998.html.  Also, for background on ILO convention 87, including a link to its full text, check http://www.icftu.org/english/turights/50thcampaign/pamphlet.html.) 

Is the U.S. Guilty of Hypocrisy?

In major signs of a political turn-around, Indonesia has not only freed the country's top independent trade unionist, Muchtar Pakpahan, but also ratified the core ILO convention, number 87, titled "concerning freedom of association and protection of the right to organize." It states:
"Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization."
In Geneva Indonesia's Minister of Manpower, Fahmi Idris, on June 10 formally notified the ILO of the ratification.  And Pakpahan, just two weeks out of jail, was there too, not just to thank those who had long campaigned for his freedom but also to serve notice that Indonesia had to make more political progress, first of all by releasing all its political prisoners.  (For background on Pakpahan, see an article of mine, "Triumphing Over Fear in Indonesia," published two years ago in the Christian Science Monitor.)

U.S. Is Among a Dwindling Number of Hold-Outs

With Indonesia on board, the landmark ILO convention on freedom of association and the right to organize has now received 122 ratifications among its 174 member states.  The United States is not among them.  In fact, out of seven ILO conventions guaranteeing the basic human rights of workers (officially designated as "core labor standards"), the United States has ratified only one--convention 105, which prohibits the "use of any form of forced or compulsory labor" for political coercion or political punishment.

What is going on? Here is the United States, a foremost champion of human rights in the world, refusing to sign the ILO's basic human rights conventions, except for one against forced labor as a political tool.  The contradiction has not gone unnoticed, especially by autocratic rulers whose methods come under U.S. scrutiny and pressure. Yet even some friends of the United States have called the U.S. position hypocritical.

Who Are the Hypocrites?

The charge of hypocrisy confuses the issue.  The basic reason why the U.S. has not ratified ILO convention 87 on the right to organize, and a later one (98) reinforcing the same right, is the strong opposition of U.S. employer organizations. Except in some of their rhetoric, they aren't hypocrites.  They oppose unionization in every way open to them, both in the United States and abroad.

Result: a stalemate in the U.S. government.   No top leader, Democratic or Republican, has the vision or the guts to break the stalemate.

A variation of the "hypocrisy" argument is one that says: "The United States should get its own house in order at home before it promotes human rights in the world."  But there is no reason why it can't do both, and every reason why it must do both.  As the world's superpower, it cannot long escape its global responsibilities.  Trying to do so is a dangerous form of isolationism.  And it's also truly hypocritical. 

Mitsubishi's Unsettling $34 Million Settlement

It's the largest cash settlement ever made in a sexual harassment lawsuit.  Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, a subsidiary of a giant Japanese corporation, is paying $34 million and apologizing to more than 300 women who had been subjected to a pattern of harassment at its auto plant in Normal, Ill.  A June 11 press release issued by  the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) called Mitsubishi's agreement voluntary, but it came as the EEOC was preparing to bring to trial a lawsuit that it had filed in April 1996.

At that time, one of the first Bulletins of Human Rights for Workers reported on the scandal at the Mitsubishi plant.  The EEOC found, for example, that women workers at the plant had to endure "groping, grabbing, and touching" and pressures to submit to  sexual relations as a condition of employment.

Under the title, "Sexual Harassment at Workplace Needs Global Action," HRFW's report asked: "What is the moral difference between 'groping, grabbing, and touching' women making cars for us in Normal, Ill., and doing that (and worse) to women making toys and dolls for us in Shenzhen, China?"  The question is still valid.

At the time we said that the World Trade Organization should cure its "morally reprehensensible" myopia on worker rights. That myopia still handicaps the WTO. 

Diary: Some Lessons Learned from Students

This month I'm teaching a course on "Human Rights in the Global Economy" at the Learning in Retirement Center of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.  A major reason why I volunteered for this task was that I thought I could learn from the students.  I was right.  I started learning quickly.

In the first session I lectured at some length on the problem of child labor.  I brought a poster showing a little Bangladeshi garment worker peering from behind a locked gate--he wanted to go home in mid-afternoon but couldn't because his 12-hour shift wasn't yet finished.  I mentioned U.S. consumer complicity in the growth of child labor in some Asian industries with massive exports to the United States.

All true enough, but I put it on too thick, I'm afraid. Several people argued strongly that poor families needed to send their children to work. The following week about a third or more of the class didn't return. In retrospect,  I feel that I had, unintentionally, placed too much responsibility or blame on them as consumers.

I have also become more sensitive to distinctions underlying this subject.  I had quoted several authorities, including two from India, who make the case that child labor causes poverty, instead of poverty causing child labor.  But, as some students pointed out, many parents in India seek to alleviate their family's poverty by sending the children as young as 7 or 8 out into the workforce. So are the authorities wrong?  No, because (this is what I didn't make clear at the time) they are talking about the long-range good of the child and the common good of society. After all, forcing little girls and boys to go to workplaces instead of school rooms is bound to keep them uneducated and poor for the rest of their lives.  That's a fact.  At the same time, however, many children are forced to work because of a need (as perceived by parents) to pursue a short-range and individual good.  That's a fact too.

Hence, personal dilemmas. But  governments must set public policies that advance the common good of a society, including the long-range good of individuals in it.

Is that clear?  Probably not.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-12, June 15, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1998
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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