Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. 1, No. 4: March 23, 1996 

China's 'Appalling Record' Under Sustained Fire from Amnesty

"No one is safe." That's the theme of a campaign that Amnesty International is mounting against China for systematically violating human rights by harassing, arresting, imprisoning, torturing, and killing innocent men and women and even selling the organs of people it executes. The year-long campaign will be hard-hitting, as is clear from a new Amnesty report on China and a series of Amnesty press conferences in March in Tokyo, Hong Kong, and other Asian cities.

In Tokyo, for example, Pierre Sane, Amnesty International's secretary general, rebuked Japan for failing to protest what he called China's "appalling record" of human rights violations. Recalling that Japan wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Sane asked: "What kind of international leadership will Japan show if it is prepared to toe the Chinese line?"

At the same time, Sane reminded European governments that their human rights resolve is being tested at the current meeting in Geneva of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Pointing out that Germany and France so far seem unwilling to support a strong resolution on China, he asked: "What conclusions can we draw from this? That the French government is more concerned with selling Airbus airplanes than stopping women being given forced abortions or raped in custody? That the German government is more concerned with selling cars than stopping Tibetan nuns from being tortured?"

Hard Choices for Business People With a Conscience

The campaign has a broad scope (for details see Amnesty's Web page). It is even trying to persuade foreign business executives in China to take a stand. A new Amnesty brochure, arguing that "Human rights are everyone's business," calls upon on businesses dealing with China to "ensure that their working practices in China set an example to others by respecting the fundamental human rights of their employees, particularly the rights of their employees to free speech and association." The perils in following such advice, especially on the right of workers to organize and to speak up, are great, however. Amnesty's own reports prove that. Last year Amnesty publicized the cases of dozens of working men and women sentenced to prison terms, up to 20 years, for non-violent support of labor causes.

What, then, are the options for conscientious business executives dealing with China?

But to do nothing except compromise with China's militaristic and statist system may well prove to be the most unrealistic policy of all. And the riskiest.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment has been flowing into China at fantastic levels: $38 billion in 1995, the World Bank announced in March. That made China by far the largest beneficiary of all poor countries -- it got 42% of the total of $90 billion.

Hmmm. How many Chinese intercontinental missiles are those billions building? Indeed, no one is safe.

Crisis in International Labor Organization over Worker Rights

"The failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries."
So says the preamble to the constitution of the International Labor Organization. Those words, going back to the organization's founding in 1919, recognize the de facto link between trade and inhumane working conditions. Doing something specific about surmounting that "obstacle," however, is another matter, and a highly controversial one in the ILO as well as in the World Trade Organization.

It might seem strange that this concern over the human rights for workers would be controversial in the ILO, of all places, but it's a fact. Some of its member governments (from China on down) shudder at the thought of rights for workers. Several leading governments renowned for authoritarianism have joined forces with leading employers to create a stalemate that has reached crisis proportions.

Michel Hansenne, ILO director general, has diligently sought a way to end the stalemate. In an early March speech given in southern England, he outlined a proposal that reconfirms the ILO commitment to human rights standards for workers while rejecting "a single-minded insistence on trade sanctions" to implement those standards. But how to make that commitment meaningful in the fiercely competitive environment of the global economy? What inducement do repressive regimes and abusive employers have to change practices that suit their interests? The ILO's executive board, its governing body, is currently examining possible new procedures to encourage the adoption of improved labor standards, but the worst that even the barbaric violators will face are verbal slaps on the wrist--moral sanctions.

Hansenne says: "The effectiveness of [moral sanctions] should not be underestimated." ...Well, yes, that's so in the case of reasonably moral governments. Regrettably, there are others.

Yet Hansenne does add this warning: "If international agreement cannot be reached on a few rules of the game, some players will make their own rules. Unilateral trade sanctions by powerful individual countries or trading blocs, restrictions on development aid or financial flows, and consumer boycotts will be hard to avoid."

True. In fact, the United States and European countries, acting unilaterally, have already adopted some weak linkages between worker rights and trade rights. Unilaterally strengthening those linkages is probably the only way to make some headway against the stubborn opposition in both the ILO and the WTO.

Even many specialists are woefully ignorant of this trend of the times: the global economy is increasingly governed by internationally designed and enforced rules. Take international banking. It has a regulatory structure--with penalties (sanctions!)--that the world's leading economic powers developed over the past 20 years, and formalized in two little-known agreements of the 1980s, the Basle Concordat and the Basle Accord. These rules have made the world's financial system "shockproof," and prevented its collapse during a recent series of grave crises, including the meltdown of the Mexican peso in 1994. So says Ethan B. Kapstein of Harvard, an international banker and economist. For the details, read his book, "Governing the Global Economy: International Finance and the State" (Harvard University Press).

Both in the book and in a recent Foreign Affairs article, Kapstein demonstrates that, contrary to conventional wisdom, globalization does not deprive nation-states of the opportunity, the power, or the responsibility to achieve effective international cooperation for the common good. To the contrary, globalization increases the responsibilities of the United States and other major powers. The precedent, as well as the pattern, already exists for a Geneva Accord on international worker rights, if only leading governments would exercise their responsibilities.

Mr. President, the ball is in your court.

Exploding a Favorite Myth of Economists

The next time you hear somebody say that the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930 caused or worsened the Great Depression, tell them that they are repeating a myth. Smoot-Hawley has long been a favorite whipping boy of the dominant school of economists. Recent research shows that they are propagating a falsehood.

For the truth, check out a new book, "Opening America's Market: U.S. Foreign Trade Policy Since 1776" (University of North Carolina Press), by Alfred E. Eckes Jr., an economic historian. His book lays out the detailed evidence that demolishes the Smoot-Hawley legend. "Contrary to the conventional wisdom," Eckes writes, "Smoot-Hawley produced little retaliation or discrimination against American exports. The fury of the global depression, not the irritation of American tariff changes, forced foreign governments to restrict trade and currency flows, and to concentrate on domestic economic recovery."

In another recent book, "Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes" (University of Chicago Press), Paul Bairoch, a professor of economic history, also shows that the wave of protectionism of the early 1930s was a consequence, rather than a cause, of the world depression. But, as both scholars point out, the simplistic myth lives on, not only in textbooks and in political rhetoric, but in U.S. trade policy. It is one rhetorical weapon deployed to block serious discussion of international worker rights.

In Case You Missed This...

"Outsourcing"--relying on outside or contract employees rather than people employed on payrolls--is a large and growing practice of the federal government. While the U.S. government spent $103 billion on salary and benefits for regular employees in 1995, its expenditures for workers under some form of outside contract was even higher--$114 billion, a 3.5% increase over 1994.
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At a congressional hearing in March representatives from various think tanks--including the business-oriented Cato Institute--agreed that the federal budget deficit could be reduced by $60 billion over seven years if the full range of corporate subsidies were eliminated. But neither party is pressing for cuts in the "corporate welfare" provided by U.S. taxpayers. Of course, some of these subsidies can be justified, but then so can most of conventional "welfare." But when was the last time you heard a politician defend welfare payments to the poor?

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President Clinton's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $5.15 an hour from its present $4.25 level is moving very slowly in Congress. There hasn't been an increase since 1991, even as inflation grew by 11%. For an excellent analysis of this important issue, see the AFL-CIO Web page (

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

 Bulletin No. 4: March 23, 1996

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