Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol I, No. 3: March 8, 1996 

Special Action Alerts: On Forced Labor and On the Right to Demonstrate

Hong Kong and the Right to Demonstrate

In support of a campaign for the safe production of toys, participants in an international meeting in Hong Kong held a demonstration outside a toy fair sponsored by a business group on January 10. (For details on this campaign, see "Our Children Don't Need Blood-Stained Toys" in the Bulletin of February 23.) Private security police broke up the demonstration, tore up banners, and physically attacked the demonstrators. Later, eight of the demonstrators were arrested, and have criminal charges hanging over them. The Coalition involved in this campaign is publishing a protest ad in a local Hong Kong newspaper, and invites worker rights supporters in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere to sign the ad and to help defray its cost. Fast action required. Ad deadline March 10 for publication March 14. Contact: Chan Ka Wai, Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, fax 852-2724 5098; tel: 852-2724/5098; or Apo Leong, Asian Monitor Resource Center, fax: 852-2385, or e-mail:

European Commission and Forced Labor in Burma


The Commission of the European Union (formerly European Community) is debating whether European countries should continue to reward Burma with $30 million a year in reduced tariffs while the military regime exploits tens of thousands of its citizens in forced labor on tourism projects and other forms of development. The Commission, which already has a good deal of information on this practice from various sources, is open to further evidence. Submit by March 20 to the European Commission, Directorate General 1B, External Relations, Rue de la Loi/Westraat 200, B-1049 Brussels (fax: 32-2-229-1047).

A Miracle Made in the World Bank, Not in Indonesia

Here are two conflicting views of a major Asian country, Indonesia. Which analysis is correct?

1. How the World Bank Sees Indonesia:

Indonesia ranks near the top among the Asian countries that have produced what the World Bank calls a "miracle." In a report titled The East Asian Miracle, the Bank hails Indonesia for its "remarkable record of high and sustained economic growth." This "phenomenal success," the report says, qualifies Indonesia for the Bank's newly minted acronym, HPAE, or a "High Performing Asian Economy," one of eight (out of 23) East Asian economies achieving that honor.

2. How the Far Eastern Economic Review Sees Indonesia:

In a cover story titled "Social Dynamite," the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review reports: "Unrest is being fueled by the widening economic disparity between rich and poor Indonesians." The article lists the increasing number of incidents of mob violence, and quotes a series of Indonesian sources who blame the frustrated aspirations of younger people who are looking for a share of Indonesia's new wealth, but "with no place to air complaints," as one business research group put it. Even a member of Golkar, the ruling party, says that "There is a perception that all we are doing is protecting corporate interests."

In a theoretical sense, the second analysis does not contradict the first. The two simply use different lenses for different pictures of Indonesian reality. The World Bank report sees a miracle in Indonesia mostly through the narrow lens of economic growth, as measured by increases in gross domestic product and similar macroeconomic data, including export performance. On the other hand, the magazine article, using a wide-angle lens not limited to a few measures of economic progress, sees an Indonesia sitting on a keg of dynamite. Previously, the magazine has recounted the continuing unrest among workers and the brutal way that the military regime crushes every initiative to form independent trade unions representing worker interests.

The World Bank report gives Indonesia credit, deserved or not, for "shared growth." Meaning, for example, that Indonesia's distribution of income is allegedly about the same as that of Australia, France, Switzerland, and Italy (when relying on government data that compares the richest 20% of the population with the poorest 20%). But what about a better long-term indicator of economic security, concentration of wealth? Silence.

Pressures on the World Bank's Directions

To its credit, the World Bank is gradually evolving away from rigid adherence to one of its founding principles: "Only economic considerations shall be relevant to [the Bank's] decisions." Faced by various internal and external pressures, it is these days operating under the banner of "sustainable development." That sounds non-controversial enough: after all, who could be for development that is not sustainable? Still, the Bank, now understanding seeing its work as a blend of economic and social development, has become involved in some new concerns, while always scrupulously avoiding the term "human rights."

Last year, a half century after its founding, the World Bank for the first time gave serious recognition to the role of working men and women in the world economy. It did so in its 1995 World Development Report, titled "Workers in an Integrating World." One of the unusual positions articulated there was this one on the positive effects of trade unions:

"By balancing the power relationship between workers and managers, unions limit employer behavior that is arbitrary, exploitative, or retaliatory. By establishing grievance and arbitration procedures, unions reduce turnover and promote stability in the work force--conditions which, when combined with an overall improvement in industrial relations, enhance workers' productivity."
At the same time, Bank officials, previously accessible mostly to government officials, have opened their doors to trade union officials, as well as to representatives of other non-governmental groups. In December, for example, top leaders of eight national trade union centers from francophone Africa met in Washington, D.C., with senior officials of the World Bank and its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, for a lengthy exchange of information and views on development activities in Africa.

 Two years ago the U.S. Congress formally prodded the Bank and other international development agencies to pay more attention to worker rights. The U.S. representatives on those bodies were mandated to use their "voice and vote" in those agencies to further the requirement that borrowing countries "enforce laws affording internationally-recognized worker rights," such as freedom of association and right to organize. The first U.S. Treasury report on how this requirement has been implemented should be available in time for the next issue of this Bulletin. 


How Foreign Investments Strengthen a Communist Regime

It is refreshing to read, in a pro-business publication, some truths about the much-ballyhooed "economic reforms" of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In a recent report, the Economist points out that, during a five-year period of economic growth, the Hanoi government's share of the Vietnamese economy has increased from 32% to 40%. Why?
Partly "because almost all the foreign joint-ventures set up in Vietnam are with state-owned partners. The opening of the economy, far from weakening the state's grip, is strengthening it."
Is it too much to expect democratic governments to discourage foreign investments that tighten a Communist regime's grip on the Vietnamese people? The shame does not end there. American companies are even seeking to protect those Vietnamese state-sector investments of theirs with insurance by the American government through the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC). If U.S. companies want to prop up this Communist government, they should at least not have their risky collaboration guaranteed by U.S. taxpayers.

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

 Bulletin No. 3: March 8, 1996

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