Vol. VI, Bulletin No. 10.                                                                       September 6, 2001

Demonstration at UN for Children's Rights

A march to the United Nations headquarters in New York City on September 18 will seek "to remind all governments that the promises made to children are a sacred trust."  The demonstration will precede a Special Session of the UN General Assembly September 19-21, when more than 75 world leaders will review commitments made at the 1990 World Summit for Children.

In a letter inviting participation in the march, Kailash Satyarti of India, head of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude and leader of a world organization for children's rights, the Global March Against Child Labor, writes: "Many of the promises that sparkled so brightly in 1990 have gone unfulfilled. Now, instead of looking for ways to finally live up to those promises, many governments would like to simply forget them. But we won't let them."

The march, co-sponsored by various organizations dedicated to the human rights of children, will converge on the UN headquarters on the afternoon of September 18, and will be followed by a rally and candlelight vigil.

Details on these events can be obtained from a co-sponsor, Kids Meeting Kids (212-662-2327, email kidsmtgkids@igc.org) and from the Website of the Child Labor Coalition.

Bangladesh Garment Factories Still Deadly

"How many more workers have to die before the [Bangladesh] government takes action to stamp out the lawlessness in the industry?"
Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, posed that question last month after the latest tragic episode in the Bangladesh garment industry.  Twenty-one garment workers, mostly women, died and at least 50 more suffered serious injuries on the morning of August 8 in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital city. They became casualties when thousands of workers frantically tried to flee an eight-storey building following a fire alarm.  They were crushed to death rushing down a narrow stairway and behind two locked exits on the ground floor.

Later factory owners claimed that there had been no real fire, only bright "sparks" and a loud noise from a faulty electrical junction box in a factory on the sixth floor. But that was enough to cause someone to trigger the fire alarm and plunge the whole building into darkness. Three of the four factories in the building had never conducted a fire drill.

Both government officials and leading newspapers in Dhaka criticized the garment factory owners for callous indifference to worker safety. The criticism was nothing new. It was especially loud late last year, when 48 garment workers, 10 of them children as young as 10, died after a four-hour fire that engulfed a garment factory in an export processing zone near Dhaka. (See "Globalization Claims More Victims.")

Reports from Dhaka did not mention whether any young children were among last month's casualties. Bangladesh law permits children as young as 14 to be employed in factories. The garment industry has of late reduced the number of underage children in its employ.

Bangladesh is a major producer of garment exports to the United States and Europe. Most of the production of the four factories involved in last month's tragedy goes to Europe, but one sells sweaters to the Target chain in the United States.

Who Is Responsible for These Tragedies?

Although, as Labor Leader Kearney charged, the blame falls primarily on the government of Bangladesh, that government is not alone in failing to accept responsibility. Far from it.  The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has the power to pressure its members to make reforms, but it has not.  And the retail stores in the United States and Europe that import tons of garments each month from Bangladesh and the governments of the United States and Western Europe have the power to pressure the Bangladesh government to make reforms, but they have not.

The deathtraps -- and the irresponsibility -- are as old as the Bangladesh export garment industry itself, going back at least 15 years. Every few years the U.S. government, under pressure, threatens to withdraw some of the generous duty-free import benefits it grants to Bangladesh unless Bangladesh cleans up its garment factories. International trade rules permit such an action; U.S. law mandates it.  But nothing happens. Nothing. The factory owners in Bangladesh know that. Why should they change? So nothing happens to make life safer for the women and men who produce the sweaters, dresses, shirts, and other garments we wear. How many more of them will have to die because of our irresponsibility?

No Safe Haven for WTO in Qatar

Pity the leaders of the World Trade Organization. Hoping for a setting more congenial than the one they found in Seattle in late 1999, they chose a tiny country on the Arabian peninsula, Qatar, for their Ministerial meeting in November this year. They may be in for a disappointment.

The WTO meeting in Seattle lives on in public memory because of its large and sometimes riotous street demonstrations, which were forerunners of street protests in Quebec City, Genoa, and elsewhere. Qatar, with its tough security laws, will most likely take care of controlling any demonstrations mounted by visiting non-governmental organizations.  This year, however, the world labor movement will widen the geographical scope of its protest:  unions in dozens of countries will join other groups to mark November 9, the opening day of the WTO summit, as a "Global Day of Action" against WTO policies.

But the fiasco at Seattle cannot be blamed completely on the protests outside WTO meeting halls. Equally serious was the "rebellion of developing countries within the meeting halls," according to Walden Bello, a sociology professor at the University of the Philippines and co-director of Focus on the Global South at the University of Bangkok. The governments of developing countries, he says, "could no longer allow just a few countries to ram policies down their throats in the name of consensus."

Even though labor and environmental standards were almost invisible on the list of the U.S.'s priorities (despite a lot of rhetoric), they drew a lot of public fire at Seattle and became a convenient scapegoat for the summit's  failure. Actually, the event was doomed for much broader reasons. Its leaders overreached. They pushed a huge agenda, far too extensive for most developing countries and too much even for the developed world. Unrealistically, they pressed for agreement on far too many topics on which there was a wide assortment of disagreements -- disagreements among governments (notably on agricultural policy) and disagreements within individual governments, as well as disagreements with major forces in civil society around the world. The WTO still has a huge agenda and disagreements to match.

A lengthy article in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs accuses the World Bank of succumbing to "mission creep" -- that is, expanding its mandate to cover goals and activities well beyond the institution's operational capability.  The author, Jessica Einhorn, a former managing director of the World Bank, urges the countries that own the Bank to reform it by adopting a "suitably modest agenda."

The WTO's leadership would do well to draw its own lessons from the Einhorn analysis. Mission creep is at the heart of its troubles.

Trade and Human Rights: The Strongest Link

Like oil and water, trade and human rights don't mix; each must remain strictly within its own realm. So runs the argument propagated as an eternal verity by trade policy makers and their allies in the media and the universities. But the argument is blatantly false. Here's the evidence, briefly:

Human Rights for Workers has exposed this falsehood before (see "Elevating Investment to a Paramount Human Right").  Now I have developed the point in an article published in the September 10 issue of the Jesuit weekly, America, under the title "Worker Rights in a Global Economy."  The subtitle: "It Is Time to Cease Discriminating Against Workers in Trade/Investment Agreements." An excerpt from the article:
"In the modern global economy, capital, as embodied in investors and other kinds of individual and corporate property owners, certainly deserves reasonable cross-border protection. So does labor. Denying such protection to labor, as embodied in workers and organizations of workers, is unjust and discriminatory."
No blueprint exists on precisely how trade and investment policy should be reformed to end this injustice in an effective way. But a solution could be found once the false foundation of present policy is widely recognized.
*  *  *
For insights on the sweeping implications of the World Trade Organization's existing protection of the right to property, see a briefing paper by Gerard Greenfield, a Canadian Auto Workers researcher, on "The WTO Agreement on Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMs)."  The U.S. is seeking to expand TRIMs by adding the stronger protections contained in NAFTA.

'America's Responsibility for Solidarity'

"A global world is essentially a world of solidarity" -- one in which "America, because of her many resources, cultural traditions, and religious values, has a special responsibility," Pope John Paul II told President Bush when the two met on July 23.

That policy, he said in a formal statement, demands "policies aimed at enabling all peoples to have access to the means required to improve their lives" -- policies such as "openness to immigrants, the cancellation or significant reduction of the debt of poorer nations, the promotion of peace through dialogue and negotiation, [and] the primacy of the rule of law."

A major part of the statement emphasized the contrast between the new opportunities for human progress created by globalization and the "tragic fault-line between those who can benefit from those opportunities and those who seem cut off from them."  Leadership from the United States, the Pope said, is needed for a "revolution of opportunity, in which all the world's peoples actively contribute to economic prosperity and share in its fruits."

Media coverage ignored that aspect of the Pope's words. It focused on one paragraph (out of eight) in the statement -- the one dealing with "the most fundamental of human rights, the right to life to life itself."  "A tragic coarsening of consciences," the Pope continued, "accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide, and most recently proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to destruction in the process."  He urged the United States to "show the world the path to a truly humane future, in which man remains the master, not the product, of his technology."

Diary: Whatever Happened to August?

I took along two yellow writing pads, one large, one small, when I entered the hospital for colon surgery. Eighteen days later, I took them back home with very few words on them, and most of those were my wife's.

Early one morning during the middle of my stay, she wrote down what I dictated, "Last night was the worst," followed by a list of what I planned to tell my doctor.  A few mornings later, I felt so much better that I was inspired to try writing an ode to my granddaughter, Mai, five months old, who with her parents brightened my life by visiting me almost every day.

That morning, full of optimism, I sat up in a chair, the large pad on my lap, ready to try my hand at poetry.  Just then I noticed a bit blotch of red on my left calf.  The IV needle on my left hand had slipped out somehow, and the blood flowed out until a nurse intervened.  No problem, except that the nurse had to probe for another vein for IV feeding, and my hands and arms were already well pockmarked with needle marks. I lost my desire to write poetry or anything else that day.

The same sluggish mood continued to grip me even after I returned home to recuperate. So all the days of August slipped by without my publishing an issue of Human Rights for Workers, even though I wrote many an item without putting it down on paper or on the computer.  Moreover, to my horror, I discovered that much of my incoming mail had gone into oblivion because of an overloaded mailbox and other problems.  My apologies to any of you whose mail never reached me.

Thanks to the help of Mai's father, Thuy, my mail system seems in working order again. But if you write me, please stick to one address from now on: robert@senser com. I've been using too many variations.

How am I doing?  Well enough to walk our dog Thor three or four times a day.  Well enough, as you can see, to put out another reasonably coherent issue of Human Rights for Workers.  But am I well enough to visit downtown Washington, say, to attend a meeting of the Child Labor Coalition?  With travel time, that trip would require being on the go four straight hours.  Better wait a while. 

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VI-10, September 6, 2001
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2001
robert@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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