Vol. V, Bulletin No. 14.                                                                        November 2, 2000

Addition to ILO Declaration Proposed

Health and Safety as a Core Worker Right

On-the-job safety and health should be added to the International Labor Organization's list of core worker rights, a law professor told the conference on Human Rights in the American Workplace sponsored last month by Cornell University.

Emily Spieler, professor of law at West Virginia University College of Law, made that recommendation in part based on her experience as commissioner of the West Virginia workers' compensation fund. The state has one of the highest occupational injury and fatality rates in the country.  Spieler rates West Virginia as "like a less developed country" in its negligence of health and safety.

She quoted a worker's comment on why protecting health and safety deserves a high priority.  If your other rights are violated, he said, "you can always quit your job, but you need your feet to walk out of the factory."

Supporting Evidence from Research in China

Strong support for health and safety as a core worker right comes in a forthcoming book, "China's Workers Under Assault," in which Anita Chan, senior research fellow at the Australian National University, documents the labor abuses routinely committed in China's workplaces.  Drawing on her extensive research in China, she writes in the current issue of Asia Pacific Business Review:

"Of all labor rights violations [in China], the worst involve occupational health and safety.  The footwear industry, for example, commonly uses toxic glues in poorly ventilated workplaces.  In the 20-plus footwear factories personally visited, none provided the workers who handle toxic adhesives with effective protective gloves and masks."
As adopted unanimously by government, worker, and employer delegates at the June 1998 International Labor Conference, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work makes it an obligation of all ILO "members" (i.e., governments) to promote and implement the following fundamental rights:
(a) freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right of collective bargaining; (b) the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
(c) the effective abolition of child labor; and
(d) the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
Employer Blasts Human Rights Watch Report

The full title of the report is Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards. That report, issued by Human Rights Watch this summer, measures U.S. labor law and practice by international norms that include one of the basic rights proclaimed by the ILO declaration, freedom of association, and found that "workers' freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States."

Thomas B. Moorhead, a business executive and for years a U.S. employer delegate to the International Labor Organization, disagrees. "I think our law serves us better than any of the so-called international norms at loose in the world," he said in a talk last month at the Cornell conference on Human Rights in the American Workplace. One of the reasons for the low U.S. unemployment rate, he said, "has to be the balance our labor laws maintain between workers and management."

U.S. labor legislation, Moorhead argued, is grounded in individual rights, in contrast to ILO standards, which he characterized as having a European and "collective" emphasis. Hence, he said, the Human Rights report wrongly assumes that it is necessarily a "bad thing" when U.S. legislation conflicts with international labor rights standards.  He challenged the belief that the ILO and other norms cited in the report "are truly generally accepted international labor norms."

What's a 'Generally Accepted International Labor Standard'?

"We have to be very careful in what we assume are generally accepted international labor standards," Moorhead said, and pointed to these measures as among "the few" that qualify:

Interestingly, U.S. employers campaigned actively for the adoption of both measures not only by the ILO but by the U.S. congress, as Moorhead pointed out.  Both meet his definition of an acceptable international norm--"a high impact standard that seeks to address fundamental workplace issues on which there can be a broad consensus on applicable policies or principles." It is a definition of a norm that, whenever ratified by the U.S., "will be generally compatible with U.S. labor law," he said.

In Moorhead's analysis, ILO Convention (No. 87) concerning Freedom of Association is not compatible with U.S. law. To put it another way (which Moorhead did not), restrictions in U.S. labor law violate the ILO Convention on Freedom of Association.

Moorhead devoted the great bulk of his talk to analyzing and praising U.S. labor law for the good he said it engenders for workers.  Human Rights Watch devoted the great bulk of its report to documenting and condemning U.S. labor practice for the evil it means for workers.  The report describes case after case of how employers in every section of the country, reinforced by police and even the courts, repress efforts of workers to form and join unions.  The hostility to unionization shown by American employers, a leading arbitrator has written, "has no parallel in the western industrial world."

Not all American employers share that hostility.  But where are they?  When do you ever hear from them? Moorhead himself concedes that "some hostility exists."  It would add some credibility to his defense of individual rights if he or his organization, the U.S. Council for International Business, were to take a stand against the worst forms of anti-union hostility.

A Government That's Chicken

The Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister in rural Delaware, cites such examples of how "Big Chicken," the poultry agribusiness, violates the rights of workers, poultry farmers, and the communities where they live.  The chicken industry, he charges, thrives on the exploited labor of thousands, immigrants and native Americans, who are kept as ad hoc indentured servants.

Lewis chairs the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) Poultry Justice Alliance, made up of poultry farmers, poultry workers, church people, union leaders, environmentalists, and others.  CBS' 60 Minutes featured their cause in a December 1999 broadcast. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have run lengthy articles exposing the industry's labor and environmental abuses.

It is impossible to listen to Lewis' story, as I did at a luncheon last month, without being moved by his plea for justice.  Huge poultry corporations like Purdue are dependent on consumers in urban areas, he points out, and implies that people who eat poultry have a responsibility to help change the "unethical and immoral practices of the poultry companies."

And yet what can an ordinary person do?  What can I do?  Well, for one thing, I can and will make a contribution to the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance (319 North Race St., Georgetown, Delaware 19947), as I have to other organizations working for social reform.  But what beyond that?  I thought of that question in the light of consumer campaigns against sweatshops, bonded labor, child labor, pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, destruction of wild life, and countless other abuses, including those compounded by globalization.

I wonder whether such campaigns, taken together, may be putting too much of a burden on consumers. It is necessary, of course, to prod the consciences of ordinary people.  But it is also necessary to demand an answer to a question ignored in the Presidential and Congressional political campaigns: what the hell is government doing about these human problems?

The question is a pressing one for whoever will occupy the White House and Capitol Hill in 2001.  The failures are bipartisan.  Shamefully and sinfully so.

N.Y. Times, Washington Post Play Catch-up

Dear Washington Post:

Finally, on October 26, the New York Times paid attention to a historic report of Human Rights Watch, Unfair Advantage, which documents how U.S. law and practice on unions sharply conflict with international human rights standards.  The Times' fairly long article, titled "Report Faults Laws for Slowing Growth of Unions," appeared rather late--54 days after the report was released for publication, and even longer after advance copies were widely distributed, including over the Web.

But at least the Times published an article about this newsy report.  Better late than never. The Washington Post ignored it completely.

This was not the first time that the Post chose to ignore an important development on the labor/human rights scene.  On July 27 the New York Times, on its front page, ran an article titled "Multinationals Sign UN Pact on Rights and Environment." It described how some 50 multinational corporations joined unions and human rights groups in declaring their support for UN General Secretary Kofi Annan's new Global Compact covering human rights, labor standards, and environmental protections. The Global Pact is an important private sector initiative to deal with the downsides of globalization.  Again, the Washington Post ignored the story.

On September 17 the Financial Times featured a story out of Washington titled "US Companies 'More Aggressive Toward Unions'," summarizing an 86-page report by the U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission.  The Times ignored it. So did the Post.

What's up?  The strange silence on these stories, and similar ones over the years, suggests a need for awareness-raising at the Washington Post.

*  *  *
On October 26 I emailed the above letter to two offices of the Washington Post with a request for comment. None was forthcoming. However, on the op-ed page of its October 30 issue, the Post ran a long article, "U.S. Workers' Rights Are Being Abused," by Lance Compa with highlights from the Human Rights Watch report that he had spent a year researching and writing.

(Click the underlined words above for background on each of the three developments, as summarized in previous issues HRFW.)

Correction: World Bank Still a Laggard

In these pages and elsewhere, I have publicized the remarkable address that Joseph Stiglitz, a mainstream economist, gave in January at the conclusion of his three years as chief economist of the World Bank. In a magazine article I quoted the two sentences with which he closed that address:

"Labor unions and other genuine forms of popular self-organization are key to democratic economic development. That is why today, the World Bank supports the labor standards of the ILO, including the rights to organize and collectively bargain."  [My emphasis.]
By email someone who follows the World Bank called that last sentence an overstatement of Bank policy.  Two other knowledgeable persons have told me the same thing.  Evidently, those italicized words reflected Stiglitz' aspirations for the Bank rather than approved policy.

I quoted Stiglitz's address at some length in two issues of Human Rights for Workers. Somehow, however, I neglected to quote his explicit assertion that the World Bank supports the right to unionize. Still, I mistakenly gave the impression that the World Bank had indeed achieved a major policy breakthrough of some kind on fundamental worker rights.

So where does the World Bank really stand?  Has it rejected those rights?  Not quite. Its position is more nuanced, to put it delicately.  Several people have been told that the Bank "supports but doesn't promote" the right to organize and bargain collectively. Nevertheless, it does now "take a stand" against child labor and slave labor. Bravo. That's some progress for a multilateral agency in the new millennium.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-14, November 2, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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