Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 3.                                                                   February 8, 1999 

Urges Respecting Worker Rights, Such as Right to Organize

UN Chief's Challenge to Corporate Leaders
Was he dreaming, or what?

Kofi Annan, United Nations Secretary General, issued an unusual challenge to international big business late last month at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  There, amid 1,000 top executives of corporations with revenues of at least $1 billion a year, he urged businessmen and women to join with the UN and UN agencies to promote "a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards, and environmental standards" in the global economy.

He became quite specific about the "great opportunities and great responsibilities" facing corporate leaders in promoting worker rights.  For example:

"Don't wait for every country to introduce laws protecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. You can at least make sure your own employees, and those of your subcontractors, enjoy those rights. You can at least make sure that you yourselves are not employing under-age children or forced labor, either directly or indirectly. And you can make sure that, in your own hiring and firing policies, you do not discriminate on grounds of race, creed, gender, or ethnic origin."
Warning of a Backlash Against Globalization

Failure to take steps to give the global economy a "human face," he said, will leave it "fragile and vulnerable--vulnerable to backlash from all the 'isms' of our post-cold-war world: protectionism, populism, nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, fanaticism, and terrorism."

He reminded his audience that "the global markets and multilateral trading system we have today" happened not by accident, but by the "enlightened policy choices made by governments since 1945."  To preserve the global economy into the 21st century, he argued, "all of us--governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations, international organizations--have to make the right choices now."

Note that Annan puts corporations right after governments on that list. Perhaps he should put them first. Most political leaders today, whatever their party or personal beliefs, are so dependent on corporate campaign funds that they seldom take any initiative that doesn't get a significant green light from the corporate world.

Annan told the corporate executives that "we have to choose between a global market driven only by calculations of short-term profit and one which has a human face,...between a selfish free-for-all in which we ignore the fate of the losers, and a future in which the strong and successful accept their responsibilities, showing global vision and leadership." [My emphasis.]

Paging Somebody Strong and Successful to 'Just Do It'

In these cyberpages I have pointed out that progress in the global struggle for worker rights is stymied by the opposition of powerful business groups and that a breakthrough is very unlikely without some responsible leadership from the employers' side. (See Challenging Nike to 'Just Do It'.)  I even suggested that, from the logic of Nike's own code of conduct, which says "We are driven to do not only what is required but what is expected of a leader," Nike's own CEO, Phil Knight, ought to step into that role.

Was I dreaming, or what?

(See http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/1999/19990201.sgsm6881.html for Kofi Annan's January 31 address. It merits reading in full by anyone interested in human rights.)

*   *   *
How Kofi Annan Weakened His Initiative

Three sentences in Kofi Annan's address at Davos greatly watered down his proposal:

"There is enormous pressure from various interest groups to load the trade regime and investment agreements with restrictions aimed at preserving standards in the three areas I have mentioned [human rights, labor, and the environment]. These are legitimate concerns. But restrictions on trade and investment are not the right means to use when tackling them."
Instead, the UN Secretary General favors finding "a way to achieve our proclaimed standards by other means." Fat chance. Purely voluntary means won't work. They don't in any other important problem area--from drunken driving on up to international piracy of Hollywood movies. It is naive to think otherwise.
*   *   *

Exporting Corporate Hostility Against Unions
Thanks in part to pro-management decisions by U.S. courts and regulatory bodies, "companies have become more aggressive in their efforts to keep unions out," Andrew Hacker, a City University of New York social scientist, writes in the February 18 issue of the New York Review of Books.  Out of several hundred firms surveyed in a study he cites, 71% hired anti-union consultants, 42% formed opposition committees, and 30% fired pro-union workers.

Today only about 14% of employed Americans belong to unions, the lowest proportion since 1936. Because of sustained management hostility, it's no surprise that union membership is low--the wonder is that it still is so high.

(For the full text of the New York Review of Books' informative article, see  http://www.nybooks.com:80/nyrev/WWWfeatdisplay.cgi?19990218045R.)

Intervening in Foreign Government's Labor Policies

In today's global economy, that kind of hostility passes easily across borders.  In fact, it ranks among the major exports of American companies.

In that light, the advice of the UN Secretary General to corporate executives is off-key.  "Don't wait," he said, "for every country to introduce laws protecting freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining."  The fact is that multinational corporations, in Asia and elsewhere, have not been waiting.  They have long aggressively and successfully lobbied foreign governments to abrogate or ignore any laws and regulations protecting worker rights, and especially the right to organize.

Take the Malaysia of Prime Mahathir Mohamad, the darling of U.S. corporations and (until recently) of the U.S. government.  At the behest of American companies,  Mahathir thwarted efforts to form a national union embracing more than 100,000 electronics workers, mostly women.  Only "in-house" unions were to be permitted.  But when workers at one American company succeeded in forming an in-house union, they met fierce management opposition. They held on through thick and thin, but so did the company, the Harris Corporation.  To this very day, 10 years later, Harris management is refusing to bargain with the union, even though it was properly certified years ago by the government as representing the Harris workers.

While researching the labor situation in Malaysia a decade ago, I asked a U.S. Embassy officer in Kuala Lumpur to explain the blatant anti-union practices of the American who managed the Harris plant.  "If the union wins in his plant," the officer replied, "his home office will fire him."
In his best-selling book, "One World Ready or Not," William Greider reveals much of this story, but does not fully portray the determination with which many multinationals suppress unions. Business Times, an influential daily in Kuala Lumpur, captured the passion in an exceptional 1990 editorial.  It criticized the Harris Corporation for having "a phobia about worker unionization that strains credulity," and accused Harris management of having a "colonial attitude."

The Price of Colonialism in Its Globalized Guise

A new form of colonialism is gripping the world. It's a globalized model in which modern colonialists leave their democratic home country, not so much to benefit from lower wages, but to extract foreign government guarantees that they can operate "union free" and also "free" of much else:

In an increasingly competitive world, will those kinds of humane practices survive in the United States when they are being massively suppressed abroad?  Don't count on it.

(For some thoughts of mine along the same line, see Vol. I, No. 1, of Human Rights for Workers, dated February 11, 1996.)

Documenting China's Human Rights Crackdown

As governments of the European Union prepared for their next round of human rights dialogue with officials of the People's Republic of China starting on February 8, Amnesty International issued a sobering report on the recent deterioration of human rights in China. In an open letter Amnesty urged the EU to protest publicly against "one of the most disturbing crackdowns seen in China in the past decade."

The report and open letter, available on Amnesty International's Website, summarize a shameful record for the consideration of all governments when the 55th UN Commission on Human Rights meets in Geneva in March. Last year, for the first time since 1990, the United States government declined to sponsor a resolution criticizing China's human rights policies and practices.  Earlier, China had promised to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and did so in October. Amnesty documents how human rights in China deteriorated after that.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-3, February 8, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor

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

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