Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 15: September 8, 1997 
State and Local Governments Launch Boycotts

Coming: the People vs. the WTO

A grass-roots movement is persuading some U.S. governments below the federal level to make sure that local tax dollars are not used to subsidize oppression. The instrument is a legal ban on any procurement from companies that do business in certain oppressive countries.

Currently, the main target is Burma. A dozen cities, including New York and San Francisco, and one state--Massachusetts--have already applied the ban to Burma; other states and cities are considering proposals to do the same. Moreover, Indonesia, China, and Nigeria may be added to the target list.

These initiatives are modeled after the 1980s campaign that supported Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa. Then about 130 cities and 28 states adopted various procurement policies aimed against South Africa's apartheid government.

 But that was before the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994. The WTO has new rules that, originally designed to counteract protectionist procurement policies by governments, are couched in terms so broad that they can apply to bans inspired by human rights violations. So the U.S. government now faces pressure from European governments to make Massachusetts and other communities toe the WTO line, or else face sanctions. (You can find the full text of the WTO Procurement Agreement at

If the WTO had been operating with such restrictions 10 years ago, "Nelson Mandela might still be in jail today," says Simon Billennes, an analyst in a Boston investment firm. "Here in Boston there's a certain tradition of not letting European bureaucrats impinge on our decisions regarding taxes and spending."
"This is democratization of foreign policy run amok," Richard N. Haas, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, complained to the Washington Post. So a new business coalition called USA Engage, with 632 corporations and associations as members, is lobbying for new legislation that would clearly let international commerce escape any human rights conditionality applied by government at any level.

Pennsylvania Taking Aim at Nike's Labor Policies

Many members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, for example, don't agree. In a new approach, 45 House members have introduced legislation applying sanctions to Nike for its "global pattern of [labor] abuse." Their bill, up for consideration next month, calls for a state-government-wide boycott of Nike, to include a ban on:

Democratic societies do not tolerate domestic trade that violates human rights. They won't long tolerate global commerce that does so. If the WTO ignores that reality, then the WTO is in deep trouble. So should be any political leader who supports that immoral position.

Monitoring Incomes of Corporate Elite

"If you look at the value being added to these companies, it is mostly coming from the production workers and the rank and file, but the rewards are all going to the guys at the top, and we want to fight back."--Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO has launched a new Web site: "Executive PayWatch--a working families' guide to monitoring and curtailing excessive salaries, bonuses, and perks in CEO compensation packages." Check it out at

 Besides documenting the ever-increasing gap between CEO pay and the wages of ordinary working men and women, the PayWatch has a "what you can do" section that enables you to sound off to boards of directors, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Congress.

 Another Web source on the same subject is provided by an organization called United for a Fair Economy at I'm looking for Web sites dealing with widening wealth and income equality outside the United States, and will post what I find.

Triumphing over Fear in Indonesia: Muchtar Pakpahan

More than two years ago I wrote an article titled "Triumphing over Fear in Indonesia," about Muchtar Pakpahan, independent labor leader then, as now, in jail. He is the recipient of the 1997 George Meany Human Rights Award, which his wife will accept at the AFL-CIO convention in late September. The article, slightly abbreviated, appeared in the Christian Science Monitor of April 11, 1995, under a different title ("Indonesia Can't Silence Independent Labor Group"). Here is a substantial excerpt, unedited.
Courage is "not the absence of fear but the triumph over it." So writes Nelson Mandela in his powerful autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Its pages overflow with moving testimony to how he and his freedom-loving compatriots in South Africa risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in opposing apartheid and its violence to the dignity of the human person.

All across the world, our era has been blessed with many other men and women daring to risk everything in struggles against repressive societies that restrict freedom to the few. Some of those courageous leaders are well known: Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Lech Walesa in Poland, Andre Sakharov in the Soviet Union, and Wei Jingsheng in China. But there are many others, unknown or little known.

One is an idealistic Indonesian labor lawyer, Muchtar Pakpahan, 41, who dared to found and lead an independent organization of workers, the Indonesian Welfare Labor Union, or SBSI by its Indonesian acronym. Against all odds, Pakpahan and his colleagues rallied some 300,000 workers to the SBSI banner [in the three years] after its founding in 1992. That did not sit well with the military regime in Jakarta. The government has its own organization for the industrial labor force, the All-Indonesia Workers Union, whose disciplined subservience is enforced by active and retired military officers. For defying that government monopoly, Pakpahan is now serving a four-year prison term.

In its attempt to cow Pakpahan, a man of deep democratic convictions who once chaired the Indonesian Christian Students Movement in Medan, the government has used many tactics. Police shut down a national SBSI congress in mid-1993 minutes after Pakpahan opened it. They have repeatedly detained him and his colleagues. Once they interrogated him for 19 hours. At times, they sought to tempt him with a senior post in the government union and opportunities to study abroad. Even his wife and children have not been spared from harassment. At school, his three children suffer taunts calling their father a Communist, a criminal, and a trouble-maker.

Pakpahan is currently being retried in an Indonesian court. For updates on his fate, check the Web page of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions at

Reminding U.S. Government of Its Responsibilities

Is the fledgling Apparel Industry Partnership and its code of conduct just a ploy for the U.S. government to evade its responsibilities for enforcing U.S. laws on international worker rights? A longtime worker activist fears that it is. Jeff Ballinger, director of Press for Change, aired his concerns in a letter to the New York Times, published August 25.

In an August 20 editorial titled "Watching the Sweatshops," the Times described the on-going deliberations of the Partnership, and explained why "qualified local church and human rights groups" should be allowed to help in monitoring codes of conduct in overseas factories. Ballinger strongly agreed, but then asked: "What about the role of the United States government?" He answered his question in these two paragraphs:

"It appears that the Clinton Administration has cleverly brought apparel companies together with labor and human rights groups to find a solution to a problem the White House wanted to avoid dealing with: enforcing United States trade and investment laws aimed at getting authoritarian regimes to allow workers a chance to organize and bargain collectively. There is no way that a voluntary code of conduct for labor practices-- including what you call 'the right to unionize'--is going to change the reality of trade union suppression in most of the developing world.

"It is certainly possible, however, for the Clinton Administration to send signals that the worker rights provisions in the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Generalized System of Preferences, and Multilateral Guarantee Association will be more rigorously applied. If this does not happen, the workers the American public is concerned about will continue to face a tough slog, even in certified 'no sweat' factories."

Ballinger is 100% right about this: that code of conduct initiatives, including the fine work of the Apparel Industry Partnership, will have little or no impact, unless the U.S. government does its part, above all by getting serious about enforcing its own responsibilities under U.S. law. Its delinquency in this respect is especially scandalous in the case of Indonesia.

Why Does White House Still Bestow Favors on Indonesia?

The evidence of worker rights violations in Indonesia is clear and plentiful, and yet for years now the Clinton administration has let Indonesia off the hook, repeatedly continuing to favor Indonesia with the tariff-free export benefits to which it is no longer rightly entitled. At a White House press conference November 16, a reporter asked for an explanation. The President gave none ("I can't answer the question," he said). Why not? Ten months have passed, and the administration still has given no explanation. Why not?

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

 Bulletin No. II-15: September 8, 1997


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