Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. 1, No. 11: November 28, 1996 

Indonesia Again Jails a Freedom Fighter

The military government of Indonesia has once again arrested Muchtar Pakpahan, an independent union leader, this time under subversion charges which, though trumped up, could mean the death penalty.

The government made Pakpahan the scapegoat for a wave of worker unrest in 1994. It punished him with a three-year prison sentence, later increased to four years when he appealed. After an international outcry, the Indonesian Supreme Court quashed the sentence in 1995, but decided to reinstitute it this year after Pakpahan continued to irritate the political elite with his union work and protest activities. The government socked him with an additional criminal charge of subversion in July. This time it accused him of "masterminding" violence that was really caused by police and government hooligans.

Although authorities charge Pakpahan with illegal political activities, police interrogations have pressed him hard on his union work. "His only crime has been to defend fellow workers," says Bill Jordan, general secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, who headed a mission to Jakarta in early November. An ICFTU board meeting at the end of November pledged to intensify a world-wide campaign to gain Pakpahan's immediate release.

Pakpahan, 42, whom Time magazine in 1994 hailed as a member "The Global 100--...young leaders for the new millennium," is one of a growing number of heroic men and women in Asia who are risking their own freedom to fight for the freedom of others. They eminently deserve solidarity support from all of us who live in freedom.

Prospects for Worker Rights Under Clinton-Gore II

What's the outlook for progress on international worker rights during the second term of President Clinton and Vice President Gore?

The departure of Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is not a good sign. You can't fault him for wanting to return to the less turbulent life of Harvard, but he'll be missed by anyone who cares about the fate of workers in the United States and the world. For these two reasons, among others:

The most depressing signal projected by the administration emerges from its shameless eagerness for exchange visits with the top leaders of the People's Republic of China. Why should the President of the United States reach out to embrace dictators whose hands are still stained with blood from the Beijing massacre? As a Congressional staffer said publicly the other day, the U.S. relationship with China is a 25-year affair of unrequited love. Incomprehensible.

Corporate Power over U.S. Foreign Policy

During the Presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee took a lot of heat for accepting big contributions from Indonesian sources. The implication was that this money persuaded the administration to ignore worker rights violations that, if U.S. law were enforced, would have disqualified Indonesia from duty-free U.S. trade benefits. Conveniently overlooked in this hoopla was that American corporations doing business in Indonesia had long lobbied both Democrats and Republicans to safeguard the generous tariff subsidies they get for Indonesian imports into the United States.

In its current issue (11/28), the Far Eastern Economic Review shows how the system works. Thanks to a strong campaign by a coalition for a free Burma, Senators Daniel Moynihan (NY) and Mitch McConnell (Ky) introduced legislation that would have imposed sanctions on Burma because of "large-scale acts of repression" committed by the military junta there. Their bill almost passed, but was defeated after the intervention of a Washington lobbying firm representing at least one big oil company, Unocal. Instead, Congress passed a weak law that gives the President discretionary power to ban new investment in Burma if, in his opinion, the repression gets worse.

For details, check out the Free Burma Web site at http//

A Mix of Business and Oily Values

In his new book, Business As a Calling: Work and the Examined Life (Free Press, 1996, $22.50), Michael Novak holds up a career in business as "not only a morally serious occupation but a morally noble one." This, as Novak correctly points out, is a dimension generally ignored by economists and teachers of business. Unfortunately, the book itself explores that dimension too superficially. It devotes far too much space to philosophizing on an old theme of his, the moral superiority of capitalism.

Novak does well to emphasize at length the responsibilities that business, as a career and as an institution, has "to the moral ecology of our nation" and even to the world. Rarely, however, does he leave the level of abstract principles to grapple with the concrete moral problems confronting the business world, such as sexual harassment, discriminatory hiring practices, insider trading, inadequate monitoring of contractors and subcontractors, and brutal suppression of the right of employees to organize.

When he does become specific, Novak sometimes expresses real moral indignation, as when he calls it "wrong--devastatingly wrong" for business to support advertising that assaults "traditional values." In his most penetrating chapter, "Business and Human Rights," Novak transcends generalizations about corporations as "a key institution of the free society," and deals with some challenging issues facing global business.

He urges transnational firms to be more than "passive"--for example, by actively interceding with the Burmese military to free Aung San Sui Ky, the pro-democracy advocate who could live in freedom abroad but insists on trying to do so in her own homeland. Novak clearly agonizes over the question of whether an oil corporation like Unocal should withdraw from Burma, and concludes that it "is far from clear to me" that it should. He makes the argument, often used in similar settings, that the presence of corporations like Unocal in a repressive country is justified because it can demonstrate "what a capitalist firm truly values and holds dear."

As evidence, Novak cites Unocal's international code of conduct, which closes with a commitment to be "a good friend of the people of our host country." Really?

Burma's heroic Aung San Sui Ky, released from house arrest but not really free, says: "A small group of generals and businessmen are getting very rich now from the foreign investment, but the condition of most people gets worse." Further, Unocal as a private corporation enjoys freedom of association in Burma, but, both in its code of conduct and in its actual conduct, it fails to respect that same freedom for its Burmese employees. Some friend of the people. Some values.

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

 Bulletin No. 11: November 28, 1996


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