Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 6: April 25, 1997 

Sanctions for Burma, a Code for Sweatshops

Chalk up a couple of points for the growing community of people around the world dedicated to the proposition that international trade and investment policy is immoral if it lacks a human rights dimension. Both these actions have serious shortcomings. The new sanctions apply only to new investments, not to those already made by Arco, Texaco, and other U.S. multinationals, which together make the United States the world's fourth largest investor in Burma. And the new apparel industry code of conduct is weak on monitoring and somewhat flawed in content--setting a workweek of 60 hours as a maximum, for example.


(For a brief critique of the new code, see a press release on the Web page of an Australian organization, Community Aid Abroad, at See also other parts of this page; it's a leading example of world-wide activism on a worker rights issue.)
Yet in a global economy rife with labor and other human rights abuses, both initiatives are important steps forward. The limited sanctions may encourage other nations also to apply pressure on Burma (the countries of the European Union have already suspended Burma's tariff- free privileges). And the apparel code has properly been hailed as "historic," since no significant group of leaders of a global industry has made any commitment remotely close to the one made in Washington.
Channeling Public Outrage Into Progress
The greatest significance of both developments is this: they illustrate what can be achieved by mobilizing public opinion.

In the case of Burma, the sanctions were imposed the day before the beginning of a "Three Days for Burma" campaign in 60 campuses and communities and in 400 workplaces of the Oil and Atomic Workers International Union of the AFL-CIO. Robert Wages, president of the Oil union, said:

"It marks one of the first times in recent memory that workers and students have joined together to protest corporate support for atrocities abroad. It shows that there is a rapidly growing movement in this country to make oil companies and other multinational corporations accountable for their actions. At the same time that oil companies downsize or shut down their U.S. operations, they are expanding their operations in Burma and elsewhere where workers have no rights and the use of forced and child labor is routine."
Another pressure for sanctions against Burma came from activism over the Internet, particularly through the Web page of the Free Burma coalition at Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, points out:
"Cyberspace spawned the movement to restore human rights in Burma. The proliferation of information has put Burma higher on the U.S. policy agenda than it ever would have been otherwise."
Public Outrage Against Sweatshops

Television exposes, such as a report by the CBS "48 Hours" broadcast on abuses at a Nike plant in October, have been largely responsible for the provoking public outrage against sweatshops. Without that outrage, and without leadership from the U.S. Labor Department, industry leaders (and competitors) such as Nike and Reebok would never have united behind an anti-sweatshop campaign. But here again the modern wonders of email and the Worldwide Web, have played a large role, and are continuing to do so.

In March an independent investigator, a Vietnamese-American businessman named Thuyen Nguyen, made a detailed indictment of labor practices at five Nike plants in Vietnam. A Bulletin of ours ran a summary of his report early in April (see "Nike on the Hot Spot, Again"). Now his full report is available on the Web site Vietnam Labor Watch, with highlights at html.

(A discharged Nike worker from Indonesia will be visiting Canada soon. For a report on that and related matters from Alberta, see the Web site "Just Do It.")
Here are highlights excerpted from Thuyen's report:: Such blatant violations of women workers are shockingly widespread, and not just at Nike plants. It is high time for a concerted campaign not just because of the wrongs done to individuals (though that is reason enough for action) but because these are tools to instill submission and fear into the whole work force and thus keep it under rigid control. Physical violence, and the threat of physical violence, is a common weapon employed to inhibit worker demands for the "decent and humane working conditions" laid down in the new code. The weapon does not always work, as recently shown in Indonesia and Vietnam.


Reverberations in Indonesia and Vietnam

Asian reactions against sweatshop scandals often go unreported in the United States. Last year, a thousand local residents demonstrated outside a Nike plant in Vietnam where 15 women workers were hit over the head by a Korean supervisor. Since then, a series of protest strikes have broken out at Nike plants in Vietnam.

Just a week after the April 14 White House ceremony, 10,000 Indonesian workers making Nike shoes went on strike in protest over a failure to pay the legal minimum wage. On April 1, an increase of less than three cents an hour was supposed to go into effect in Tangerang, an industrial area outside Jakarta, but when a locally owned factory under contract to Nike refused to pay it, most workers abandoned their jobs and went on a march to the local parliament. After a two-hour meeting there, which included worker representatives, the strike ended when management agreed to pay the increase. According to reports in the Jakarta press, the company had previously received government permission to delay paying the new minimum on the grounds of financial hardship. Unrest is brewing at other Indonesian shoe and garment factories that have received the same permission, using the same reason.

"It's unconscionable," says Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, a worker rights group, referring to the anomaly in Nike's international operations, which made $673 million profits last year but whose Indonesian contractors resist a government order to raise wages 22 cents a day--from $2.26 to $2.46 a day.

The struggle goes on. It's a long way from over, because the global system of exploiting vulnerable workers is deep rooted and widely dispersed. It is protected by the self interest of governmental and non-governmental elites accruing incredible economic and political benefits from it.

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

 Bulletin No. II-6: April 25, 1997


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