Vol. VI, Bulletin No. 3. February 20, 2001
Mobilizing for 'Global Fairness' in AmericasVoices of Working People and Their Allies 'Will Be Heard'Very little is publicly known about the on-going negotiations for a trade and investment agreement covering the whole Western hemisphere. That must change, AFL-CIO leaders resolved on February 14 at an executive council meeting in Los Angeles. Joining them in that determination were several key union leaders from throughout the hemisphere, including Luis Anderson, general secretary of the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers.
At Trade/Investment Meetings in Buenos Aires and Quebec City
Their "Campaign for Global Fairness" will have an immediate focus: the hemispheric meeting of trade ministers in Buenos Aires and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, both in April. The meetings will discuss the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), in negotiation now for several years. Unions are seeking to end what they call the "excessive secrecy" of the negotiations, with "privileged access and consideration to corporate representatives." Says an AFL-CIO statement:"But this year, the trade bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists will have company. Our trade union brothers and sisters in the hemisphere are working with civil society allies to organize teach-ins, corporate tribunals, and street demonstrations. Trade unionists, environmentalists, students, family farmers, women, people of faith, and representatives from indigenous communities will be gathering in the streets, convention halls, churches, and schools of Buenos Aires and Quebec City to make their voices heard.New Trade Model Needs to Replace NAFTA
"They are demanding that any future regional trade or investment pact reflect their concerns--not just those of the multinational corporations and policy elite of the hemisphere."
According to the limited information available, FTAA is being modeled after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), whose main effect, the AFL-CIO states, has been "to strengthen the clout and bargaining power of multinational corporations, to limit the scope of governments to regulate in the public interest, and to force workers into more direct competition with each other--reinforcing the downward pressure on living standards."
The present narrow negotiating process "and any agreement it may produce will face fierce and broad public opposition in many countries," the AFL-CIO statement declares. It lists a dozen ingredients of "a new progressive model of trade and development" for the hemisphere. These include:
This year may indeed be what the AFL-CIO calls "a crucial turning point" in the direction of global trade and investment policy. The major issues, stripped of trade jargon and bureaucratic complexities, are human rights issues, and thus will bear close attention, closer than usually found in the mass media.
- "enforceable workers' rights and environmental standards in its core."
- "measures to ensure that countries retain the ability to regulate the flow of speculative capital in order to protect their economies from excessive volatility."
- "investment rules...[that] rely on government-to-government rather than investor-to-state dispute resolution, [and that] preserve the ability of governments to regulate corporate behavior to protect the economic, social, and health and safety interests of their citizens."
- "protection...for the rights of migrant workers throughout the hemisphere, regardless of their legal status."
A TV 'Survivor' Series on Asian Sweatshops?Prompted by the spectacular success of programs like "Survivor," television producers are scrambling to find new ideas to satisfy the public's interest in "Reality" shows.--News report.Two young American idealists, Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu, last summer spent a month living in a working class area near Jakarta, Indonesia, under conditions typical for Nike workers. They each kept their expenses at a little above $1 a day, which is the average wage earned by Nike shoe workers in that country. Now they're traveling through the United States describing their findings to college and university students. They are speaking at 17 schools in February alone.
In Champaign, Ill., in a talk this month at the University of Illinois, Keady illustrated the dilemmas that workers face trying to survive on Nike wages. Since a bottle of a child's cough medicine in Indonesia costs 121% of a day's wage, workers often have to choose between food and medicine. "Practically all children of factory workers are malnourished," he said. "A common element is fear," because managers routinely crush efforts to improve conditions through unionization.
Eradicating Sweatshops Deemed a Mission Possible
In Minneapolis, before Keady and Kretzu were to talk at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., a Star-Tribune reporter asked them about the big odds they faced in their campaign to expose and end sweatshop abuses. The reporter, Doug Grow, suggested that they had taken on a mission impossible, "given that Keady and Kretzu speak to small groups of people while Nike advertises to hundreds of millions, and given that you can't watch a sporting event without being confronted by the swoosh.""I don't think it's futile," Keady said. "You look back in history, there are all sorts of movements that started small. I just received an e-mail from an 8-year-old soccer player in Canada. He wrote and said, 'I used to think it was cool to wear stuff like Nike's. I don't anymore.' Things like that give me great hope."Apart from their speaking tour and media interviews, Keady and Kretzu carry on their mission through a Website, called the Olympic Wage Project (at www.nikewages.org). It began as a way to dramatize the huge contrast between the living conditions of two sets of people--the athletes at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia and the women and men who make the athletes' shoes and clothes. The site contains the journal Keady kept last summer while living in an industrial area near Jakarta. (For background, see a HRFW report, "Learning How You Survive on $1 a Day."
Nike (at www.nikebiz.com) criticizes the Keady/Kretzu findings, partly because they are based on only one month of research. However, in 1997 Nike itself found itself pleased with the results of less than two weeks of research done by Andrew Young in 12 Nike factories in three countries, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. (For HRFW's 1997 critique of the Young study, check "A Code Needed for Code of Conduct Monitors.)
Note to TV Producers Seeking Ideas for a 'Survivor'-Type Series
There are Reality TV possibilities in China, Vietnam, and Indonesia. One is a series depicting how young Asian women survive working and living in sweatshops producing for Nike, Gap, or Kohl. It may be difficult to get the necessary film shots, although Harry Wu did it even in China's prisons. Another angle might be to set up a sweatshop-like factory and dorm where a group of young Americans would live and work for a month under the supervision of Taiwanese supervisors just as ruthless as their real-life counterparts.
Far-fetched? The imaginative producers of Reality TV could handle the challenge. Besides, they could draw on the expertise of Jim Keady and Leslie Kretzu.
Flagstaff's China Dilemma Is Everyone's
On its masthead, the Flagstaff Tea Party calls itself "a community forum for the discussion of progressive ideas." And in its mission statement the Arizona monthly commits itself to supporting locally owned businesses and to striving "to improve the standard of living for working people everywhere." What should it do when those two goals seem to conflict?
Much of the paper's 24-page February issue is devoted to agonizing over that question. It arises because 1) a well-liked Flagstaff businessman developed a highly successful product, Teva sandals, and 2) he now has those sandals made in China.
By digging into the facts, "we found we were opening a can of worms," writes Editor Dan Frazier. Both he and his wife, Lisa Rayner, the publisher, wear Teva sandals, and wouldn't do without them. And every month since it was founded more than a year ago, Teva has been advertising in the Flagstaff Tea Party, "undoubtedly more of a charitable contribution than a marketing necessity." Here's how Frazier handles the hot potato:
Responsibilities for Causing and Repairing Sweatshops Are Closely Linked
- In a long article headlined "The Man Who Walked in Water," Frazier describes how Mark Thatcher, owner and founder of Teva, "rose from a Philadelphia ghetto to become one of Flagstaff's entrepreneurial legends." Thatcher's company sells 2.5 million pairs of Teva footwear worldwide.
- In separate article, "Made in China," Frazier interviews Thatcher on how production of Teva sandals, originally in California, was moved to Taiwanese-owned factories in Guangdong, China, by Thatcher's licensee, Deckers Outdoor Corporation. Thatcher is quoted as saying: "It's my responsibility to approve the quality, not the source of manufacture."
- Two other articles deal with worker rights abuses in China. One, "The Trouble with China," quotes extensively from reports by Global Exchange and a Hong Kong newspaper on the sweatshops producing footwear for the U.S. market. Another reprints (with permission) an article from the January issue of Human Rights for Workers under the title "China's Anti-Sweatshop Challenge," the same one we used.
- In an editorial Frazier ponders the question: "Who is to blame for what is going on in China?" After going through a list of candidates--companies small and large like Teva and Deckers, Taiwanese factory owners, China's government, China's workers (for failure to stand up for their rights), U.S. retailers, U.S. consumers--Frazier answers: "The truth is, almost everybody is to blame on some level. We all have blood on our hands (and feet), which makes it very hard to blame anyone with a straight face. The truth is, the system is broken."
Parts of the Flagstaff Tea Party's February issue are available on the publication's Website: www.flagstaffcentral.com/teaparty. Frazier invites comments. Briefly, here are my own:
The present global production system does need fixing, and responsibility for creating it is indeed very widespread. But so is responsibility for repairing it. The two responsibilities are interwoven. Leadership for change needs to come from many places, including places such Flagstaff, Arizona, and from many leaders, including enterprising business people like Mark Thatcher.
The WTO's Self-Inflicted Isolation
Three years ago President Clinton urged two Geneva-based international institutions, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), "to work together to make certain that open trade...respects the core labor standards that are essential not only to worker rights, but to human rights." He recommended that the two organizations "convene at a high level to discuss these issues."
Those were not off-hand remarks. Clinton made them in an address on May 18, 1998, to a large Geneva assembly commemorating the 50th anniversary of the WTO and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
What has happened to that proposal? Nothing.
The WTO does permit some of its staff members to talk with ILO people from time to time, but officially the WTO shuns the ILO as though it were poison. That boycott has lasted for more than a half century. It's long past time for the WTO to end a policy of shutting itself off from the global issues affecting working men and women. Time for the organization that fosters open trade to open its doors.
Diary: Five Years Old, and Meditating
How time does fly! Human Rights for Workers first saw life in February 1996, and here we are, five years later, still alive and kicking.
A good time for a few moments of reflection on a basic question: what is HRFW all about? I formulated an answer a couple of years ago, and still use it in a separate section. But there's not just one way to explain what we're doing.
Another way came to mind this month on the second Sunday of February, when the Liturgy of the Catholic and some Protestant churches included excerpts from the first Psalm of the Book of Psalms. I read and reread those lines, and was particularly struck by the Psalm's words hailing as "blessed" the person who "delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night." The choir singing the Psalm in my parish that Sunday called such a person "happy" (as does the Tanakh, in the 1985 translation of the Jewish Publication Society).
My reflections led me to another way of expressing the purpose of HRFW: to meditate on what God's supreme law of love and justice means in the globalized 21st century and on what people who care can do about it. Could we possibly have a happier mission?
Email: Getting Help on Work Problems
"My employer insists I work overtime day in and day out. I don't want to. I can't, because of my family responsibilities. Can you tell me what to do, short of quitting?"
That's one example of the email queries I get regularly from people asking for advice on their labor problems. Unfortunately, it's impossible for me to comply. For one thing, labor laws and practices vary tremendously from state to state and from industry to industry. Even if I were a lawyer, which I am not, I would be unable to provide practical help. One suggestion I have offered is that persons with a problem contact a union in the area where they live, but I was rarely able to supply a name and address.
Now the AFL-CIO has come to the rescue. Its Website offers a state-by-state listing of central labor councils in cities across the United States. Check http://www.aflcio.org/unioncity/isyour.htm.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VI-3, February 20, 2001
Robert A. Senser, editor
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