Vol. VI, Bulletin No. 9. July 27, 2001
The Administration's Choice: Whether or Not To Support Freedom
Burma Poses Major Test for President Bush
Never before in history have their been so many speeches, resolutions, codes of conduct, declarations, seminars, studies, and other pronouncements supporting human rights, including the human rights of workers. Seldom, however, has there been such a tragic contradiction between espoused principles and everyday practice. World policy toward Burma, renamed Myanmar by the ruling military junta, illustrates that contradiction.
Burma's military regime has few rivals for brutally oppressing its own people. It does so in a multitude of ways, including the forced labor of men, women, and children. Year after year, the U.S. State Department's human rights reports have documented that oppression. And the UN's International Labor Organization has condemned Burma specifically for its "widespread and systematic" use of forced labor, in violation of an ILO anti-forced labor convention that Burma once ratified.
The U.S. government has distanced itself somewhat from the Burmese regime by banning new American investment in that country. At the same time, however, the U.S. has become increasingly complicit in its support for the military regime through a trade policy deficient in human rights values. From 1997 to 2000 U.S. imports of made-in-Myanmar wearing apparel, fisheries products, gems, and tropical timber increased nearly five-fold.
Some Leaders in Congress Take Aim at U.S. Support of Junta
A bipartisan initiative in the U.S. congress targets this trade relationship in a way to give the regime a practical incentive to clean up its act. Bills introduced in the House (as the Burma Freedom Act) and in the Senate specify that "no article that is produced, manufactured, or grown in Burma may be imported into the United States" until the government in Burma eliminates forced labor and improves other human rights conditions.
The volume of U.S. trade with Burma, though significant for the military regime, is insignificant for the United States. So the Burma Freedom Act, endorsed by the Free Burma Coalition, would seem likely to sail through Congress easily. But it has an uncertain future because it violates a cardinal principle of free trade doctrine. That doctrine bars the use of trade sanctions for human rights purposes (except to protect the rights of business), even as a last resort and for grave reasons.
In their self-serving opposition to the Burma legislation, business organizations throw no stones and organize no demonstrations, but rely on their money-backed lobbying power. And they will prevail unless strong leaders with a value-based vision intervene.
Historian Conor Cruise O'Brien describes how opposition to slavery and the slave trade developed in the 18th and 19th century:"Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations...played a decisive part in the movement of enlightened opinion in Britain...The best minds in the British Parliament were strongly influenced by The Wealth of Nations....Burke, Fox, and Pitt -- men widely separated in their politics in the 1790s -- all supported the abolition of the slave trade....Broadly speaking, what Adam Smith was telling those whom he influenced was that pushing people around was often unrewarding even for the pushers."Where are the 21st Century Adam Smiths and Edmund Burkes? Even an American economist of the stature of Joseph E. Stiglitz, who has decried how "the fundamental propositions of neoclassical economics...undermine[s] the rights and position of labor" and vitiates the development programs of the International Monetary Fund, does not speak out on how conventional free trade doctrine promotes unfreedom, including modern forms of slavery, such as bonded labor in Burma and elsewhere.
A Disturbing Silence of the Powerful
Many people are shocked or at least puzzled by "anti-globalization" demonstrations, the latest (but not the last) being the one that occurred in Genoa, Italy, in mid-July. What is more shocking and puzzling is that the leaders of the major industrial nations who met in Genoa did not tell the military rulers of Burma: "Stop! Enough! No more support from us. Not a dollar more, not a yen more." Most of those demonstrators are not against globalization. They are against the globalization that promotes human slavery.
In 1765 Edmund Burke, reacting against slavery in the American colonies, opposed a proposal to seat American elected representatives in the House of Commons because they "allow themselves an unlimited right over the liberties and lives of others." So far President George W. Bush has been silent about employing trade sanctions against a regime exercising unlimited power over the liberties and lives of its people. Hopefully, his vision of freedom may yet match that of Edmund Burke.
'Emerging Markets' as an Offensive Concept
MEMO TO JEFFREY GARTEN, Dean, Yale School of Management
Congratulations for your op-ed piece, "Free Trade Has To Be Managed," in the July 18 New York Times. Your basic advice to President Bush is sound: that his strategy on globalization must go beyond offering rhetorical support for free trade. As you suggest, the Bush Administration and its partners in the wealthy world must take the lead in developing new ways to cope with globalization and the crises caused by its ups and downs -- currently, for example, in "emerging markets from Argentina to Turkey to Indonesia."
Although I agree with much of what you say, I must tell you of my objections to "emerging markets" as the all-purpose label for countries poorer than ours. I know it is a fashionable expression these days. But it is inherently offensive nevertheless. Why?
I emailed the above memo to Professor Garten on July 18, explaining that I planned to run it in the next issue of Human Rights for Workers. Inviting him to comment, I asked: "Am I overdoing my critique?" He quickly sent back the following reply:
- Because it expresses a mindset that reduces certain countries to mere markets and their people to mere consumers of goods and services -- ours hopefully.
- Because it turns certain countries into abstractions that make it easier to regard the men, women, and children of those countries as mere objects for exploitation through another abstraction, "free trade."
- Because it promotes the modern obsession with markets -- buying and selling -- as the dominant human institution, overriding all the others that nurture the human family.
- Because, subtly, it betrays an attitude bestowing moral superiority on the countries that have "emerged," an attitude hardly justified by our histories.
Thanks a million. I think you have an excellent point. I used words much too loosely. I do believe that a market economy is the best kind, but that's not the same as a market-society, which I have many problems with.
Email: Corporate Social Responsibility
To: Human Rights for Workers
I just happened to learn about your site. We in Ethibel/Stock at Stake are a research/evaluation company specializing in corporate social responsibility and social responsible investment. We are in Brussels, Belgium, but we widely research Japanese companies and other Asian companies and their behavior in the Asian continent as to human rights compliance, working conditions, etc.
I wish to be on your list of people to whom you send an email notification after uploading the latest edition Human Rights for Workers. Thank you very much.
Kyoko Sakuma, Research Analyst/Japan Network Coordinator
Ethibel/Stock at Stake: http://www.ethibel.org
* * *Not long ago only a few organizations monitored the worker rights practices of corporations, and those that did had labor connections of some kind, direct or indirect. Now there's a growing network of non-labor, non-human rights organizations doing so. Check the Ethibel Website as an example of the new trend.
Diary: Celebration of a Global Conscience
Claims about progress achieved under globalization usually leave me skeptical. Progress for whom? Progress compared to what? All too often, intentionally or not, talk about progress feeds contentment with the status quo, ignoring the abysmal plight of millions of women and men who, though producing for the global economy, are robbed of their rightful share of its bounties.
Optimism about progress prevailed at a reception held July 12 at the National Press Club in Washington. Yet the event was a tonic for me. Like hundreds of others, I was there to honor someone who has dedicated more than 40 years of his life to the human rights of workers -- Pharis Harvey, the retiring executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund. The optimism of Pharis Harvey, and of those who celebrate his achievements, is a realistic variety, recognizing both how far we have come in human rights progress and also how very far we still have to go.
In a brief chat with Pharis, I urged him to take the time to write a book titled "Why I Did What I Did." He chuckled at the suggestion. I had in a mind a very personal account of how and why he, an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church, devoted himself so ardently to the cause of the world's poor and dispossessed.
Four Brands of Power Shape Human Rights Policy and Practice
Crass though it may sound, power determines the shape of human rights in the world. Most visibly, that means the power of politics and the power of money, exercised in the arena of government and business. Pharis Harvey's work illustrates the importance of two less visible sources of power -- ideas and conscience. Along with colleagues who helped organize the International Labor Rights Fund in 1990, Pharis has played a major role in the progress toward wider acceptance of three basic moral principles:
In relentlessly pressing to turn those principles into everyday realities, Pharis Harvey got involved in controversy. Fear of controversy freezes many consciences. Not Pharis Harvey's.
- worker rights are human rights;
- respecting those rights is an obligation of government and business; and
- that obligation must be enforced not just in national law but in the rules governing the global economy.
Speaking at the reception, he mentioned in passing that some people are probably happy that he is leaving his job. Other than this oblique reference, there was no word about the stands of his that led even some natural allies to disagree vigorously with him at times. But strong disagreements, even among persons of good will, are normal in the arena of politics and money. And disagreements are to be expected even when a man of ideas and conscience enters that arena, seeking to influence it.
That was notably the case with Pharis' continuing role in the Fair Labor Association, an organization that union representatives quit while Nike and other business representatives stayed on. A book might offer his reflections on how, or whether, involvement in such worldly activities is possible without causing ruptures with natural allies.
Can Labor Catch Up With Globalization?
Out of the blue one day last October, I got an email from Bob Guldin, editor of the Foreign Service Journal, the American Foreign Service Association's monthly magazine, which had published an article of mine on international trade issues in 1999. "Hi, Bob," Guldin wrote. "I have an idea for an article that you might want to work on. The topic: how labor is dealing with globalization, especially by forming international alliances of unions and labor movements. I got the idea when I talked with an acquaintance, Ken Zinn, who works for the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers Unions (ICEM)."
Thus began a long process that finally resulted in the publication of 2,500 words on "Can Labor Catch Up With Globalization?" in the July-August issue of the Journal. Having retained electronic rights, I am reproducing the article on this Website, more or less as printed.
The first half of the article describes how a few hundred workers in a small local union in the little town of Sylacauga, Alabama, have been able to cope with a Paris-based multinational, thanks in large part to unprecedented solidarity support. That story illustrated the theme of the article: that labor can catch up with globalization, but that it's an uphill struggle. The rest of the article was hard to write and rewrite, largely because of the difficult choices involved in what to omit from the stacks of material I had collected. Even harder choices came when the Journal decided that the 3,000 words I submitted needed trimming.
I'm not entirely satisfied with the result, because there is so much more to say, and also because, in the process of rewriting, editing, condensing, and then fitting the article into the allotted pages, several mistakes were made (notice the passive voice). The Web offers the luxury of correcting such things and adding a few last-minute space-dictated deletions, and I have taken advantage of that in the attachment.
* * *World's Unions Speak Truth to Global Power, But Who's Listening?
On July 19 union leaders representing workers in the developed and developing world met with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in his role hosting the summit of the eight major industrial nations's top leaders. In a public statement and at a rally in Genoa, Italy, the labor leaders challenged the political leaders to reorient their approach to solving the world's economic problems.
That initiative illustrates how unions, at national and international levels, are trying to give workers a voice in decisions reached at global power centers. It is also the type of initiative for which I had insufficient room in my article. For details about the labor intervention at Genoa, check the Website of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and that of the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Incidentally, the Paris-based TUAC did much in mobilizing solidarity support for the besieged union in Sylacauga, Alabama. In the original draft of the Journal article, I described how, for example, TUAC handbilled shareholders as they entered a stockholders' meeting in Paris, where corporate policy on Sylacauga was discussed. That paragraph, too, died en route to the printed page.
Keeping Up With Worker Rights News
There's so much happening in the struggle for worker rights in the United States and elsewhere in the world that it's almost impossible to keep up to date. A very good way to try to do so is to subscribe to the emailed "Monthly Index" issued by the Campaign for Labor Rights. The July index, for example, has 46 timely items under headings such as sweatshop bulletins, domestic labor struggles, international labor issues, rapid action network campaigns, and "other important stuff," with links to pertinent Websites as a bonus. To get on the list of the Campaign's subscribers, now numbering 11,500, send an email to Daisy Pitkin at email@example.com. The Campaign for Labor Rights depends on voluntary contributions from subscribers and other supporters.
Further, if you want to help eliminate child labor, check the informative Website of the Child Labor Coalition, the Washington-based organization that pioneered the struggle against child labor. The URL describes its purpose very clearly: http://www.stopchildlabor.org. Timely email reports are available for the asking.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VI-9, July 27, 2001
Robert A. Senser, editor
firstname.lastname@example.org. (Send e-mail)
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