Vol. VII, Bulletin No. 4. April 8, 2002
Mass Protests Break Out in Industrial Northeast
China's Workers Struggling To Be Heard
The mass demonstrations that rocked northeastern China in recent weeks have many causes, including anger over mass unemployment, no social safety net, mounting corruption, and the growing gap between the minority of Chinese who are rich and the vast majority who are poor. Heating up this anger is frustration over the fact that the country's urban and rural workers -- the people most disadvantaged by China's economic reforms -- have had no voice in those reforms and still have no voice.
Reforms -- that's a loaded word. It has a positive spin, as though the changes wrought by China's economic transformations are good for most people. China's citizens know better. "It's really survival of the fittest here," a college instructor last month told a Washington Post reporter in the northern industrial city of Liaoyang, where more than 30,000 workers from 20 factories hit the streets during the height of the protests.
As usual, workers who emerge from the rank and file to defend the interests of workers are routinely arrested. In Liaoyang alone, as of this writing, police have locked up five worker leaders. One, Yao Fuxin, 54, the elected representative of an independent worker organization in one factory, is believed to be seriously ill because of torture. For updates on these arrests and other news, check the China Labor Bulletin and the Hong Kong Liaison Office of the global labor movement.
'Unions' Is a Misnomer for These Government-Sponsored Organizations
Meanwhile, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) acts as a representative of China's government, not of China's workers. That's normal, of course, for an official labor organization in a dictatorship. Dictatorship? That term has fallen out of fashion in recent years, but you'll find it in China's own legislation. According to a new labor law, part of the ACFTU's role is to uphold "the people's democratic dictatorship." Naturally, the law also continues to legitimize the suppression of independent unions, the usual channel by which workers can express their concerns to the powerful.
On March 28 the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, representing 157 million workers in 148 countries and territories, filed a formal complaint against China with the UN's International Labor Organization. The ICFTU and other global labor organizations also sent letters of protest to President Jiang Zemin of China.
For background on the situation of workers in China, see the March 18 testimony at a roundtable of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China by two labor experts, Mark Hankin, program development coordinator of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and Bama Athreya, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Fund. See also "China's Troubled Workers."
Exposing 'Trade' Secrets to Sunlight
Let's face it. Trade laws and treaties are voluminous, confusing, and...boring. Very boring. Just like tax laws.
Tax laws become meaningful, however, when ordinary citizens feel their impact in the dollars that they must remit to government treasuries. The impact of trade laws is indirect and less obvious but no less consequential. Just what are the practical effects of trade laws -- domestic and international, present and future? A diverse information campaign is underway to answer that question for the general public.
One important part of that effort centers on the unprecedented powers that corporations quietly acquired under the 10-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which binds the three major nations of North America. Those new powers, as contained in Chapter 11 of the 555-page NAFTA, were originally justified to serve a reasonable purpose: to protect the investments of U.S. and Canadian multinational corporations against expropriation by Mexico. But the Chapter 11 language is so general that so far at least 20 multinationals have used it to reach across borders to negate -- or to try to negate -- laws and other governmental decisions not just in Mexico but also in the United States and Canada.
In a graphic critique broadcast on PBS stations in February, Bill Moyers called Chapter 11 "an end-run around the [U.S.] constitution" for facilitating major changes in public policy in an undemocratic way. "It's all happening out of sight -- citizens have no seat at the table," Moyers charged. "Corporations have stretched NAFTA's Chapter 11 to undermine environmental decisions -- the decisions of local communities -- even an American jury. The cases brought so far total almost $4 billion dollars." Moyers' full indictment of Chapter 11, a program titled "Trading Away the Future," is available on the PBS Website.
'Eroding Power of Government To Serve the Public Interest'
Opposition to Chapter 11 has been particularly strong in Canada. A background report by the social affairs office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, for example, details objections to "the newfound power of private companies [in one nation] to sue [the government of another nation] for perceived losses of profits." The report cites four cases (U.S.-based Ethyl Corp. vs. Canada, U.S.-based S.D. Myers vs. Canada, Canada-based Methanex Corp. vs. the U.S., and U.S.-based Metalclad vs. Mexico) that rely on NAFTA's Chapter 11 to "erode the power of all levels of governments...to act in the best interest of their citizens."
Moreover, the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), now being negotiated, would extend Chapter 11-type corporate powers to cover all of North and South America and the Caribbean, as the report points out."Implications abound for the issues of state sovereignty, the capacity to provide environmental protection by law, and ultimately the democratic participation of people in their future governance," the report states. "These questions demand the attention and reflection of people of faith, especially in the light of Catholic social thought."Intergovernment Trade Negotiations Expanding in Global 'Services' Sectors
Meanwhile, with almost no media attention, global negotiations in the area of "services" are proceeding behind closed doors under the aegis of the World Trade Organization and its General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). These intergovernmental negotiations cover a huge territory geographically and otherwise. They reach far beyond the traditional area of trade (goods or merchandise) to social and public services such as health, education, water, energy, telecommunications, architecture, tourism, and much else that affects the daily lives of people.
As one top WTO official confirms, GATS extends "into areas never before recognized as trade policy." That's why it deserves at the least as much public attention as recently given to trade disputes on steel and lumber.
In a statement adopted by its executive council on February 27, the AFL-CIO pointed out that U.S. trade negotiators "are not only trying to extend the reach of GATS to more sectors and thus more areas of our lives, but they are also working to create new GATS rules that will further limit how governments around the world regulate and provide public services in the public interest." Certain sectors with "an inherently social component, such as water, energy, sanitation, corrections, education, child care, and health [should not be] locked in" by GATS negotiators with little or no expertise on the social aspects of such basic services, the AFL-CIO said.
The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives has just issued a new report on GATS, "Facing the Facts." Its co-author, Scott Sinclair, senior researcher at the Center, writes: "It is disturbing that the Canadian and other governments are doggedly negotiating to expand the GATS -- even though its existing policy impacts have neither been widely debated nor understood."
Although trade negotiations such as GATS are officially intergovernmental, multinationals work hand in hand with governments both in national capitals and in Geneva, where most of the negotiations take place. A new research paper, "Corporate Power at Work," documents how the financial services industry in the United Kingdom isn't just another pressure group working on the outside, but with government forms "a veritable corporate-state alliance...in which the distinction between public and private has become completely blurred."
Among other organizations having Websites with information on GATS:
-- Education International: "The WTO and the Millennium Round: What Is at Stake for Public Education?"
-- The World Development Movement: “GATS: a Disservice to the Poor” and “In Whose Service?”
-- The Polaris Institute: “Profiles of the Corporate Privateers Pushing the GATS Agenda”
-- The Alliance for Democracy: “GATS: In Whose Service?”
-- Friends of the Earth: “Services: the Implications of Current Trade Negotiations”
How White-Collar Crooks Go Unpunished
In language fit for a tabloid, the front cover of Fortune blares: "It's time to stop coddling white-collar crooks. Send them to jail." Inside the magazine a two-page spread introducing the article drums home the same point: "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. White-collar criminals: they lie, they cheat, they steal, and they've been getting away with it for too long."
The article by Fortune's assistant managing editor, Clifton Leaf, provides seven pages of raw material to support that indictment. Even before the scandal at Enron, corporation after corporation was involved in "gigantic white-collar swindles," Leaf writes in the March 18 issue. "And though they displayed the full creative range of executive thievery, they had one thing in common: hardly anyone ever went to prison."
Self-policing by accountants, securities dealers, and related professionals has failed to cope with white-collar crime, and so has the federal government's regulatory agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Leaf charges. "The SEC's power...lies more in persuasion than in punishment....It can't drag anybody off to prison." Meanwhile, prosecutors and judges, focusing on street crime to the neglect of corporate crime, send first-time drug offenders to an average of 64.9 months in prison."In this age of the 401(k), when the retirement dreams of middle-class America are tied to the integrity of the stock market, crooks in the corner office are everybody's problem," Leaf warns. "And the problem will not go away until white-collar thieves face a consequence they're actually scared of: time in jail."I once participated in a conference at which a group of inner-city children sat wide eyed listening to an illustrated talk about child labor in overseas sweatshops. Those boys and girls, most of them black, knew well how the police in their neighborhoods treat anyone caught with even a small amount of marijuana, and so they had a blunt reaction to revelations about child labor. Without prompting, they said of those who exploit children: "Put them in jail!"
* * *This Crackdown on Corporate Fraud Is Somewhat Cushioned
Having pled guilty to stock manipulations that cost investors nearly $100 million, Steve Madden, 45, former chief executive of Steve Madden Ltd., was sentenced to 41 months in prison on April 4. Under a 10-year contract signed last year, the company will pay him $700,000 a year even while in prison.
Learning about Child Labor and Its Cure
If you want to know about the lives of little children with full time jobs in the United States and other countries
then check a new Website, Fields of Hope. There you will find the grim facts about the widespread employment of children in agricultural industries around the world.
- planting, cutting, and sorting tobacco leaves, and spraying pesticides on tobacco plants,
- toiling in the hot sun planting, cultivating, irrigating, and picking fruits and vegetables of all kinds,
- using dangerous machetes to harvest sugar cane on large plantations,
- catching and processing fish, sometimes as virtual prisoners on off-shore fishing platforms,
Besides portraying the tragedy of these children's lives, the site also emphasizes what people can do to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The information is designed especially for students of middle-school age and older, as well as their teachers, but the insights offered are helpful to anyone concerned about the growth of abusive child labor in the modern world.
An example of the informed clarity that distinguishes this endeavor is its definition of child labor: "work that harms children and keeps them out of school." That kind of precision helps cuts short speculation about whether campaigns against child labor target all kinds of work by children, like mowing a neighbor's lawn or working part-time after school in a supermarket.
Fieldsofhope.org was developed by the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center with funds from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs. The Center has also joined with an AFL-CIO affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, to publish a brochure titled "Ending Child Labor Through Education." The brochure, which folds out into a poster, can be viewed on line, and hard copies can be ordered from the Teachers' Website, http://www.aft.org/international/child.
Diary: The Agonies of Letting Go
"Throw out old papers." In the past couple of years, I've jotted down that note many times on my list of Things To Do. I finally took it seriously one week during Lent this year, perhaps as a penance. The high point came one Thursday when the trash collectors picked up seven shopping bags full of my discards.
I felt good about getting rid of that load, but sad too. I was throwing away parts of my life. A bundle of pre-email correspondence. Original manuscripts of articles published and unpublished. Books that had once served as indispensable sources, like the 1984 Economic Report of the President ($8). Files and files of material on subjects that had once gripped my interest. And much else.
But my wife still sees no difference in the look of my office. My bookshelves, file cabinets, storage boxes, table tops, and desk are still way overloaded. I still have much throwing out to do. Some decisions should be easy. Like junking my manuals and dictionaries from French language training classes at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. But I still cling to them. Occasionally, I still review the old "dialogues" that I had spent long hours memorizing in the 1960s. At the time, to an ear whose first language was German, the French sounds seemed harsh. Now they echo back to me in a comforting way. If comfort foods serve a purpose, so can comfort books, no?
I am also still clinging to some old files with the hope they may yet bear fruit. Like the thick file I've accumulated over the years on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a government agency that provides loans and insurance to American corporations expanding their operations abroad. I've tried to interest a columnist and a TV talkshow host in developing a story on this form of "corporate welfare," but no luck. And I myself have neglected the subject.
Now, however, OPIC is in the headlines because of its lavish subsidies to Enron and other corporate giants. In recent years OPIC provided $1 billion in U.S. taxpayer-backed financing and insurance for Enron projects in 20 foreign countries. OPIC's own chairman is now saying that OPIC suffers from "mission creep." A comprehensive article is crying to be written about this scandal. One angle: the hypocritical contradiction between corporate rhetoric that extols the free market and denigrates government, on the one hand, and, on the other, corporate practice that relies on government subsidies and on governmental intervention for corporate expansion overseas (including U.S. Embassy pressure on foreign governments to favor dubious Enron projects). A magazine article on this outrageous form of corporate welfare belongs on my list of Things To Do.
But...there I go again. One reason for cleaning out my office is the need to discard a large surplus, not just of materials, but also of ideas that I haven't written up. Letting go is not easy.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-4, April 8, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
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