Vol. VII, Bulletin No.1. January 7, 2002
Despite Codes, Sweatshops Flourishing
A veteran worker rights advocate, Jeff Ballinger, has a grim assessment of progress made in the worldwide campaign against sweatshops. "There has been a tremendous accomplishment in consciousness-raising on the issue of sweatshops since the mid-90s," he writes in an op-ed article. "However, I think we have come up nearly empty-handed in terms of demonstrable gains for workers." Ballinger, founder and director of Press for Change, monitors the labor situation in sweatshop-prone countries on a near-daily basis.
Why has the progress in consciousness-raising produced very little progress for the many millions of women and men who work in the world's sweatshops? Among the reasons cited by Ballinger in his lengthy article on the Website www.behindthelabel.org:
In the late1980s Ballinger campaigned against sweatshops in Indonesia while working there as an AFL-CIO representative. With worldwide contacts amazingly broad for a part-time operation, he now carries on the struggle from Boston as pro-bono director of Press for Change, which hosts the Website Nikeworkers.org.
- The trend toward corporate codes of conduct. The codes against child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and other workplace abuses were widely assumed to be evidence of progress and compliance.
- Public relations efforts. Nike, holding a top spot on the anti-sweatshop hit lists, "soon was hustling well-known board members off to Asia [on quick, guided inspection tours], fighting an anti-sweat resolution from religious shareholders, debating Roberta Baskin, an award-winning TV journalist, about [her negative report on] its Vietnam operations."
- Clinton administration policies. Initiatives on sweatshops have been inadequate to halt "the continuing abuses by Nike's [and other] recalcitrant contractors."
It's Hazardous to Aid China's Workers
The government of China is cracking down on a lawyer and a doctor who come to the assistance of ordinary workers with serious problems. Both cases have drawn widespread attention to the plight of China's working men and women in a time of increasing labor unrest.
In the northern province of Jilin, authorities have detained Cai Guangye, 38, a doctor at a military hospital, for helping laid-off factory workers gain their legal rights, including adequate severance compensation from state-owned enterprises. At least once late last year he joined in demonstrations at which workers surrounded a city government building and shouted slogans such as "We want to eat:" and "Set up an independent workers' group." Cai has also published several essays supporting worker rights on the Website of the main Beijing newspaper, People's Daily. Military officials first took away his computer on December 11 and then took him away shortly before Christmas.
In the southern manufacturing center of Shenzhen, authorities have ordered a lawyer who represents victims of work-related accidents to shut down his practice. Zhou Litai, 45, a former factory worker and now a licensed lawyer, not only fights for injured workers in the courts but houses them while their cases are pending.
Christmas Gifts Rushed Straight from China's Sweatshops
In the province where he practices, Guangdong, factories produce a third of China's foreign exports of toys, shoes, clothing, electronics, and countless other items, many of which become Christmas gifts in the United States. "Christmas gifts?" Zhou exclaimed in a press interview. "You see what tears, what sweat are spent by the workers making these products!" Excerpts from the AP story printed in the Boston Globe on Christmas day:"Jiang Zhong'ao [one of Zhou's clients] says he used to work 14 hours or more a day to fill buyers' rush orders for circuit boards -- until last January 20, when his left hand was severed by a molding machine...Zhou says he is handling 700 cases involving just lost hands -- 500 from factories in Shenzhen....According to the January 1 New York Times, Zhou will defy the order to close his practice despite official warnings of "harsh" consequences.
"Zhou outlines what he believes are the main reasons for the tragedies he encounters each day: shoddy equipment, poor training, overtime work -- and collusion among factory owners, managers, and local officials who fail to enforce safety standards in their zeal to encourage job-creating investment."
An Economist on Why Inequality Matters
What is the greatest challenge facing the global economy? Inequality -- the great and growing gap that separates the world's rich and poor, says Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economic Science. In an article last July for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, he wrote:"The principal challenge [for globalization] relates to inequality, between as well as within nations. The relevant inequalities include disparities in affluence, but also gross asymmetries in political, social, and economic power."Sen expands on that theme in an article titled "How to Judge Globalism" published in a special supplement to the American Prospect's winter 2002 issue. The measuring rod that he strongly advocates for assessing any form of globalization is what it does about inequalities. That's why Sen is impatient with the approach that both "the apologists of globalization" and its critics take in making their opposing arguments: both sides use balance sheets of globalization's positive and negative effects. As a result, "the whole debate turns on which side is correct in this empirical approach." But that's the wrong debate, he insists, because, as he argues again and again:
"Rather," Sen writes, "the main issue is how to make good use of the remarkable benefits of economic intercourse and technological progress in a way that pays adequate attention to the interests of the deprived and the underdog." Neither anti-trade nor anti-market, he emphasizes: "We cannot reverse the economic predicament of the poor across the world by withholding from them the great advantages of contemporary technology, the well-established efficiency of international trade and exchange, and the social as well as economic merits of living in an open society."
- "Even if the poor were to get a little richer, this would not necessarily imply that the poor were getting a fair share of the potentially vast benefits of global economic interrelations."
- "One cannot rebut the charge that the global system is unfair by showing that even the poor gain something from global contacts and are not necessarily made poorer."
- "The critical issue is not whether the poor are getting marginally poorer or richer. Nor is it whether they are better off than they would be had they excluded themselves from globalized interactions."
Global Economy and Global Justice Aren't Incompatible
In short, for Sen, author of "Development of Freedom" and other books, the real issue is global justice, or a fairer distribution of globalization's benefits. "This is why many of anti-globalization protesters, who seek a better deal for the underdogs of the world, are not -- contrary to their own rhetoric and to the views attributed to them by others -- really 'anti-globalization'."
But is global justice a practical goal within a market economy? Sen considers that a "shallow question easy to answer, because it is hard to achieve economic prosperity without making extensive use of the opportunities of exchange and specialization that market relations offer. Even though the operation of a given market economy may be defective, there is no way of dispensing with the institution of markets in general as a powerful engine of progress."
Sen adds, however, that the market economy has many actual and potential forms, both on the national and international levels. It permits many variations in ownership patterns, resource availabilities, social opportunities, business rules (on monopolies and patents, for example), social security, and other regulations. These elements, in combination with variations in institutional arrangements, "can yield varying levels of inequality and poverty."
"Globalization has much to offer," Sen emphasizes. "But even as we defend it, we must also, without any contradiction, see the legitimacy of many questions that antiglobalization protesters ask." For Sen, "the ethical and human concerns" protesters raise are legitimate, and "call for serious reassessment of the adequacy of the national and global institutional arrangements that characterize our contemporary world and shape globalized economic and social relations."
Need to Reform Institutions that Limit the Opportunities of the Poor
Summarizing his position, Sen re-emphasizes that the central issue is not globalization as such, nor the market institution as such; nor is it whether the poor gain something from globalization "but whether they get a fair share and a fair opportunity." Sen concludes that both global and national institutional arrangements are in urgent need of reform to correct "both the errors of omission and those of commission that tend to give the poor across the world such limited opportunities."
In an article published in the International Herald Tribune on July 14, 2001, under the title "If It's Fair, It's Good: 10 Truths about Globalization," Sen is a little more specific about the need to reform intergovernmental institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These institutions were largely set up in the 1940s, he writes, and the changes that they have made since then fall short of the needs of today's far more globalized world.For more of Sen's insights, see his talk on Globalization: Values and Ethics, given on May 23, 2001, at the annual meeting of the Falcone Foundation.But What's the Empirical Evidence?
One of Amartya Sen's fundamental points is that inequality matters, even more than poverty. Does that make sense at the workplace level? Here's the testimony of a woman worker who emailed Human Rights for Workers last month: :I am a 23 years old and have been working really hard. I am a mother, full time worker, and have graduated from going to school last year. I make an unfair salary, even lower then the minimum that my school said I should be making after I graduated. I have found out that they gave a co-worker a raise to the same as what I am making. This person never went to school and I feel like this is an insult to me because I should be making more than this person. I feel insulted.But such a reaction is often dismissed as "anecdotal." Then perhaps evidence from China, as reported by the Economist, is more pertinent. Here are excerpts from a June 2, 2001, article headed "Market Reforms Mean that China Is Becoming More Unequal":"There is no doubt that China is in the grip of widespread discontent. Rising crime and serious, if sporadic protests are a sign that even though absolute poverty is declining, at least in the countryside, rising relative poverty is resented....Economics With a Nobel Heart
"When the economic reform era began in the late 1970s,...most people's lives were spartan. But at least most people were not significantly worse off than their neighbors; and in those circumstances, as Tolstoy remarked, a man can endure almost anything....After China joins the World Trade Organization, officials expect inequalities to widen....Small wonder then if Chinese leaders are spooked by income disparities that are ominously similar to those that fueled the revolution similar to those that fueled the revolution 50 years ago."
It is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of global policies between two schools of economics -- a clash with outcomes of vast global consequence. One school upholds global integration through free markets as the supreme good, an end in itself. The other school, which is in the minority, also embraces global integration but insists that markets must be infused with a higher good, justice, or (in the jargon of pros) equity.
In the United Kingdom, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economic Science, Amartya Sen of Trinity College, Cambridge, is a leading defender of the second school. In the United States Joseph E. Stiglitz, professor of economics at Columbia University, has that role, a role enhanced now that he recently received the 2001 Nobel Laureate in Economic Science.
Like Sen, Stiglitz contributes a feature article to a special supplement of the American Prospect's winter 2002 issue. In that article he highlights a wide range of globalization issues that he has raised before: for example, how the financial community's view of the world (meaning the approach of the U.S. Treasury Department and Wall Street) predominates in setting world economic policies -- "even when there is little evidence in its support" and even when an alternate approach might promote more growth.
His Important Insights on Labor Are Neglected
Stiglitz' article, titled "Globalism's Discontents," neglects a significant discontent -- one dealing with labor -- that he articulated at length in a January 2000 address on "Democratic Development as the Fruits of Labor." I have summarized those insights in an article published in the December 7, 2001, issue of Commonweal, and reproduced elsewhere on this Website under the title "Economics with a Heart." But my short article does not fully explain the profound case that Stiglitz made in that talk. I do quote some of his central points:
Those sentences cry for amplification. It is important to grasp these facts: Stiglitz stands out as a mainline economist who realizes that promoting economic growth and promoting democracy are not in conflict and can be pursued together. He is also doing a great service by trying to reform present public policies accordingly. Further, his approach on the rights of workers and their organizations (and other "forms of popular self organization") transcends the case that labor advocates usually make for these rights. He sees them not just as rights good for labor, rights that unions should fight for. He sees labor rights far more broadly as policies that advance the world's good, and thus as rights that others should fight for too. That's a neglected dimension of international worker rights.
- that today's narrow economic development policies should be replaced by those that are "democratic, equitable, and sustainable,"
- that rights of workers should be "a central focus" of those policies, and
- that "labor unions and other genuine forms of popular self-organization are key to democratic economic development."
Stiglitz' January 2000 address is so rich with insights that it deserves to be read and re-read. It can be found on two Websites. That of the World Bank still has it, along with a few other of Stiglitz' writings, at http://www.worldbank.org/knowledge/chiefecon/stiglitz.htm. It can also be downloaded from http://www.irra.uiuc.edu/meetings/bos-2000/stiglitzspeech.pdf.
Diary: Our Christmas Gifts to China's Regime
At least for me, the annual rite of Christmas gift-giving and gift-receiving creates anxieties of a special kind. It has become increasingly difficult to shop for merchandise not made in China, and that poses a crisis of conscience. How do I know whether this toy or this telephone was not made by Catholic priests and falun gong followers in a factory that is a branch of a forced labor camp? How do I know that this garment or this sneaker was not made in a sweatshop where women are sexually abused and where unsafe machinery can cut off their hands?
Thankfully, some of my family are sensitized to these concerns. Our son Thuy pointed me to a rare cell phone not made in China, a Siemens model made in the United States, and I bought it as a gift. We rarely have such choices available to us these days. The market is supposed to be about freedom of choice, right? But that freedom is dwindling for U.S. consumers because there are fewer and fewer alternatives. A huge volume of made-cheap-in-China goods is pouring into the United States at the rate of $2 billion (two billion dollars) a week, and is systematically destroying competition and choice.
I've just discovered that the AC adapter sold with the Siemens phone was made in China. There's no escape. Unfortunately, neither most Democrats nor most Republicans care. I find it incredible that, even from the standpoint of U.S. national security, our government shows no concern about how the huge U.S. trade deficit finances Communist China's rapid military build-up. A depressing thought at the beginning of a new year. Sorry.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-1, January 7, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
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