Global Awakening

By Robert A. Senser

This article was published in the September 22, 2000 issue of Commonweal magazine
under the title “Workers of the World: It's time to unite”

The computer-generated sign at the door of a meeting room in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) headquarters near Manila announces:
Worker Rights
Brown Bag: 12:15 p.m.
Inside, more than two dozen ADB staff members, none with a brown bag but some with sandwiches, are assembled during lunch time.  They are listening to and talking with five Filipino guests: three union leaders and two representatives of nongovernmental organizations.  It is the first-ever dialogue between bank staffers and people representing working men and women from the country in which the ADB has its headquarters.

In a half-hour slide presentation, Isidro Antonio Asper, vice president of the Philippine Federation of Free Workers, focuses on how ADB policies affect ordinary people and why the bank must become more responsive to their needs. Instead of imposing loan conditions restricting increases in the legal minimum wage, for example, the ADB "should help our government understand that workers need a living wage," so that (among other reasons) child labor can be eliminated.  Asper’s point is later amplified by his four colleagues, all members of the Philippine branch of a new network of trade unions, nongovernmental organizations, and academics in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

A bank staff member challenges Asper’s assertion that the ADB imposes labor restrictions on some loans.  But a senior bank official, Ayumi Konishi, intervenes to say that ADB has indeed imposed such restrictions, and cites a specific case in Thailand in which he was personally involved.

One of Asper’s key points is that, before making major decisions – such as on privatization or deregulation – the ADB should release information about its plans and should negotiate with nongovernmental representatives of civil society about the plans’ impact on people.  The idea of "negotiating" raises eyebrows and an objection: how can unions, with only a minority of the labor force as members, claim to represent all workers?  Hal Ponder, Philippine country representative of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, who is sitting in on the meeting, responds with a question of his own: "If trade unions can’t speak for workers, who can?"

During fifteen minutes of friendly conversation after the program ends, Konishi, the top bank official present, emphasizes that ADB could benefit from outside input, especially to "challenge our assumptions," and that it needs to engage in "dialogue on overall issues – we have not done this."

It was toward the end of a four-week research trip to Southeast Asia in the spring of 2000 that I had the opportunity to attend the session at the ADB. I couldn’t but be impressed.  One bank staff member, although also impressed, sent me a cautionary note later via e-mail: "Getting through the door, and being taken seriously by the ranking hierarchy, are two entirely different matters."

Still, that meeting is a sign of the times, exemplifying a global phenomenon. Although the concept of international worker rights is far from a recent creation, in the past few years it has reached the "tipping point" of recognition where it can now be discussed even in the hallowed halls of the ADB.

Like the distinguished seventeenth-century Frenchman in a Molière play who exclaims, "My Lord, I’ve been talking prose for the last forty years and have never known it," late in the twentieth century some distinguished international institutions awakened to an everyday reality whose significance they had not grasped earlier – the role of "civil society" (all those private individuals, informal groups, agencies, and organizations that interact to create a society’s patterns and tone). Two of those newly enlightened institutions are the Washington-based World Bank and International Monetary Fund.  Founded, funded, and controlled by governments, until recently both limited their operations to governments and the financial fraternity close to governments. Under pressure, the two vast bureaucracies have gradually opened their offices and their minds to outsiders. The World Bank now has "civil society specialists" in about seventy-five of its ninety offices in the developing world.  Regular and often intensive consultations with labor and environmental groups – national and international – are becoming frequent.

In 1995, for the first time in its history, the World Bank devoted its prestigious annual World Development Report to the working world, with an entire chapter on unions. "Free trade unions," it affirmed, "are a cornerstone of any effective system that seeks to balance the need for enterprises to remain competitive with the aspirations of workers for higher wages and better working conditions."  The report then weighed the "positive" and "negative" sides of unionization, and concluded cautiously that the effect of unions can be positive or negative, depending largely on government regulation. Since then, the ADB has gradually rated unions more positively.

At a conference on corporate responsibility and globalization held in 1999 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, author of the Sullivan Principles for companies in South Africa in the apartheid era, spoke about the need for new Sullivan Principles to "help companies to put their houses in order" in the global economy.  United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is a convert to that cause. For almost two years he has been promulgating a new "Global Compact" on human rights, labor standards, and the environment. At UN headquarters on July 26, 2000, executives of nearly fifty multinational corporations became the first business members of a new international coalition of private-sector leaders to "embrace and enact" the compact, not only in their individual corporate practices but also in lobbying for public policies. Among other things, the compact calls on world business to uphold "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining."

Those developments at the UN, the World Bank, and several other international institutions reflect the gradual awakening of the world’s elite to the fact that globalization, for all its marvels, has serious downsides. Even Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist of the New York Times, who is often euphoric about globalization, recognizes that fact. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Anchor, 2000), Friedman writes that it is necessary to address the problem of sweatshops and other abuses of workers’ rights. For many workers around the world, he says, oppression by totalitarian states "has been replaced with oppression by the unregulated capitalists, who move their manufacturing from country to country, constantly in search of those who will work for the lowest wages and lowest standards."  As a consequence, Friedman points out, "people in the developing world are increasingly focused on worker rights, jobs, the right to organize, and the right to decent working conditions."

But the challenge remains of how to have those rights implemented in an international labor market that is still largely a lawless jungle, with a globe-girdling gap between principles and practice, between rhetoric and action.

Convinced that the toothless rules of the UN’s International Labor Organization no longer suffice, many unions in both developed and developing countries have long campaigned to link worker rights and trade rights in the rule-making and rule-enforcing powers of the World Trade Organization (the WTO, like the World Bank and the IMF, is not part of the UN system). That campaign, embraced by the Clinton administration, shook up the historic WTO meeting in Seattle in late 1999.. Thanks in part to opposition from the governments of some developing countries, even a very modest U.S. proposal--to establish a committee to discuss the state of worker rights in the global economy --  failed, but the campaign nonetheless scored a public-relations triumph. TV coverage of large and occasionally violent street demonstrations made millions of people here and around the world aware of issues that the media ordinarily consider boring.

An unforeseen consequence of the campaign aimed at the WTO has been to reinforce labor initiatives that bypass the WTO. The UN Global Compact is one. Another beneficiary has been the International Labor Organization. The ILO, never widely favored in its previous eighty-one-year history, has emerged with unprecedented financial and moral support as the international organization to deal with worker rights. The U.S. Council for International Business, for example, which represents U.S. employers in the ILO’s tripartite structure, now says openly that "strengthening the ILO to deal with egregious violations of labor practices...should...remove pressure on the U.S. government to use trade agreements (for example, ’fast track,’ WTO) to deal with labor standards."

A great deal of the new support for the ILO has an ulterior motive: to ensure that, among international institutions, the ILO keeps the labor cause as its own property, not to be touched by the WTO or any other effective mechanism of enforcement.  The maneuvering is a continuing drama, with the plot action taking place not in isolation but within a larger context – the conflict over the direction of globalization. In this raging controversy, many influential individuals and organizations have voiced their discontent with the present shape of globalization. Amid the prolonged economic tumult that first erupted in Asia in mid-1997, Robert E. Rubin, then secretary of the U.S. Treasury Department, called for reforming "the architecture of the international financial system."  Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor of economics and a vigorous proponent of free trade and of the WTO, nevertheless criticizes the WTO’s powers to enforce patents and other intellectual property rights through trade sanctions.  President Bill Clinton has repeatedly pressured the WTO to adopt reforms aimed at giving it a "human face." None of them – Rubin, Bhagwati, or Clinton – fits the caricature of being antiglobalist.

The real controversy, therefore, is not over whether to reform the WTO and its sister institutions but over how to do so, and ultimately for whose benefit.  There are two major schools of thought on the matter. The dominant school sees the international agencies’ role as guiding the evolution of a global economy according to a single capitalist model, with various minor variations. A 1996 comment of Renato Ruggiero, the WTO’s first director general – "We are writing the constitution of a single global economy" – epitomizes that sweeping vision. The other school has a narrower focus.  It is represented by Dani Rodrik, professor of international political economy at Harvard.  He insists that capitalism is a country-by-country phenomenon, with versions that vary widely, and that trying to impose a single global capitalist model on the world is a grave error.  He favors letting nations have the widest possible latitude to choose their own development paths. They should be free, for example, to regulate cross-border capital movements themselves, instead of bowing to international rules dictating the unimpeded flow of such transfers.  Jagdish Bhagwati also feels strongly about this issue, and has accused a largely American "power elite" – on Wall Street, in the Treasury Department, State Department, the World Bank, and the IMF – of promoting free capital mobility to pursue the self-interest of Wall Street, which that elite "equates with the good of the world."

It is simplistic, therefore, to categorize these controversies as globalism versus antiglobalism. True-blue antiglobalists – those wanting to shut down or cripple the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF, or the ADB, or all four – are few. They are scarcer still among workers. During my trip to Asia I did not find workers shouting "Stop the world – we want to get off."  Rather, workers are demanding reforms so that they can get on the globalization bandwagon and gain their share of its bounty.

Nor does antiglobalism appeal to trade unions.  It goes against their nature.  The raison d’etre of unions is not to drive corporations out of business but to reach binding agreements with them, whether at the plant, company, industry, or national level. That spirit carries over to the international arena. There, the union goal is to get an agreement on labor rights fit for the modern world economy, not to throw a monkey wrench into it.

Just as the debates over globalization no longer center on whether global financial institutions need reform but rather on how they should be reformed, so the controversy over international worker rights is no longer about whether they need strengthening but by what means. Most mainstream economists continue to hold that the elimination of labor abuses depends on economic growth, without the intervention of governments or government-run international institutions. But that position is losing ground.  A few economists have even come to see the need for a governmental role in linking trade rights with some form of worker rights. Another option, now illegal under WTO rules (except for prison-made goods), is to permit any country to ban the importation of goods made in gross violation of its own standards.  Dani Rodrik favors such a procedure, but only in a limited way: for example, to comply with widely held norms of the importing country barring child labor.

The position of Joseph Stiglitz, former chairman of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, transcends both the minimalist and maximalist approaches to shaping the global economy.  He has developed a strong case that "worker rights should be a central focus" of economic development.  In contradiction to the neoclassical economic assumption that considers human labor as just another "factor" of production, Stiglitz has attacked a great batch of faulty economic propositions that have "served to eviscerate the rights and positions of workers."  It is time, he asserts, to "begin a shift in the prevailing paradigm."

Pope John Paul II is the world’s leading advocate of the same general idea.  Globalization "must be managed wisely," he told a crowd of 200,000 on May Day 2000. "Solidarity too must become globalized" (italics in the Vatican text). Achieving that solidarity will require a commitment from everyone, including owners, managers, financiers, retailers, professional people, and workers, he said, because of the world’s failure fully to respect human dignity and to give "due consideration [to] the universal destination of resources."

As a moral principle, the "universal destination of resources" is traditional in Catholic teaching (it is discussed in the new Catechism in the chapter on "Thou Shall Not Steal"), but its meaning is usually kept safely general, certainly not as specific as the teachings on sex.  For the 2000 Jubilee Year, however, the pope has translated the principle into a very specific goal: canceling or reducing the huge international debt that burdens many poor nations. On May Day he renewed his call for debt relief, appealing "to the rich and developed nations, but also to people of great wealth and to those who are in a position to foster solidarity among peoples."

But globalization has built into it a larger set of powerful instruments that, for good or for ill, affect human solidarity: foreign investment and trade in goods and services.  How, specifically, can wealthy nations and people, through expanded international trade and investment, do more to achieve the universal destination of resources?  That question has still not been given due consideration.

In fact, we have hardly scratched the surface of the potential for human progress opened by globalization.  The prevailing paradigm no longer suffices to take advantage of today’s boundless opportunities.  Despite increased global awareness and concern, designing and implementing a new paradigm, whether inspired by Stiglitz or John Paul II, will not be easy.  It needs a huge commitment of human ingenuity and funding, along with public and private cooperation – a commitment on a scale equal at least to, say, the project to chart human DNA or to build the international space station.


Human Rights for Workers
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2004
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