Vol. VII, Bulletin No. 11. December 13, 2002
Latest Test for Nike, Adidas, and Others
You know something is wrong when you see from afar that a crowd has gathered at the entrance to the building where you work. A guard there confirms what your co-workers have hurried to tell you: there's no work today, go home.So what would you do?
Later you learn there's no work tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. The managers are nowhere to be found. One morning a company representative suggests you come back at another time for your severance pay and other monies due you. Weeks later, you and your co-workers are still not only without a job but without the wages and severance pay the company owes you.
Hundreds of workers in Thailand have found themselves in a situation like that since early October. That was when they first learned that their workplace, a Bed & Bath Prestige apparel factory in Prapadaeng, an industrial area near Bangkok, had been shut down without notice. They were shocked. So was at least one of the several multinationals that subcontract their production to Bed & Bath. The corporate responsibility vice president for Nike, Maria S. Eitel, said that Nike "was equally surprised to recently learn that the factory unexpectedly ceased operations and that its owner cannot now be located."
Owners Withholding $400,000 Owed Workers
Since October 21, hundreds of the 800 unemployed workers have held a series of demonstrations to protest the abrupt discharges and to demand payment of about $400,000 in unpaid compensation. They have been camped out in front of the offices of the Thai Ministry of Labor to pressure the government to take action against the owners, a Thai couple. And they are putting pressure on the companies whose products they used to make -- notably Nike, Reebok, Levi Strauss, and Adidas -- charging that their former employers have been violating Thai law and the corporations' own codes of conduct. Some examples:
Ironically, as part of their uniform, the workers have been wearing name tags with laminated copies of Nike's code of conduct around their neck. According to Eitel, Nike goods comprised 20% or less of the closed factory's output.
- Excessive compulsory overtime, e.g., 100 hours during a 15-day period.
- Failure to make contributions to the Thai Social Security fund.
- Denial of rights to sick and maternity leave.
- Unclean drinking water, sometimes allegedly laced with amphetamines to keep workers productive during long hours on the job.
An open letter to Nike, posted on the Thai Labor Campaign website, charges that the Bed & Bath owners have three other factories in Thailand, and that the production from the factory near Bangkok has been shifted to one employing migrant workers near the Thai-Burma border. The Website carries the November 29 letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand asking him, among other things, to "take up this case with the U.S. companies involved" in the hope that they will "accept their share of the responsibility."
The Bed and Bath workers were not unionized, but the Thai Labor Campaign, a non-governmental organization, has been helping them cope with this crisis, e.g., by widely publicizing their plight. See http://www.thailabour.org/campaigns/bnb/what2.html for ideas on what you can do.
Putting Out Contracts on Workers' Lives
Note, in the preceding article, that even Nike didn't know what was happening at a factory making Nike products. But how could it? After all, as its vice president for corporate responsibility has pointed out: "This factory is one of more than 450 factories around the world producing Nike apparel products." Here we have the latest example of the fundamental evil inherent in the present globalized contracting-out system: it is so vast that even those responsible for corporate responsibility don't know what's going on. The system is out of control.
So far nobody has come up with a way to end this scandal. The business community hasn't. Governments haven't. The World Trade Organization rerjects proposals just to talk about it. Is there any wonder why globalization is under increasing attack?
Collaborators with Burma's Military Junta
The 15-year military dictatorship in Burma (now called Myanmar) "represents a most frustrating challenge for American diplomacy," James A. Kelly, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, declared in a policy address last month. It is also a most frustrating challenge for the United Nations, the UN International Labor Organization, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), all of which have put economic and political pressures on the regime to relax its tight grip..
Burma's rulers have refused. In October the ICFTU released a 350-page report detailing how the military junta has continued its repression, most dramatically by the massive use of forced labor. "In Burma, on any given day, several hundred thousand men, women, children, and elderly people are forced to work against their will by the country's military rulers [in] building army camps, roads, bridges, railroads, etc.," the ICFTU said. It charged that the blame is not limited to the junta, but also to multinational corporations that "financially support the junta" through trade and investment.
Last month the ICFTU released a list of 331 multinationals found "linked" with Burma during the past two years in one or more of several ways: direct investment, trade, or some other business involvement, such as support of tourism. "It is impossible," the ICFTU explained, "to conduct any trade or engage in other economic activity with Burma without providing direct or indirect support, mostly financial, to the military junta." Among the U.S.-based corporations on the list: 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co.), Boeing, Citigroup, General Motors, Haliburton, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and Unocal Corporation.
Unocal is the biggest U.S. investor in Burma. Although the Clinton administration imposed an embargo on new U.S. investment there in 1997, Unocal was able to stay on the scene, since the embargo didn't have retroactive effect. However, California-based Unocal is under legal attack for its role in Burma. "United States Court Finds Unocal May Be Liable for Aiding and Abetting Human Rights Abuses in Burma," an article in the latest issue of Human Rights Brief, published by the Washington College of Law, provides a comprehensive analysis of this case. It will be available on the WCL Website. For other information on Unocal, check the Website of the International Labor Rights Fund.
Meanwhile, according to Census Bureau data, the volume of "Made in Myanmar" apparel and other products sold in the United States has steadily increased in the past decade. In 1992 the U.S. imported $39 million in goods. Last year it imported $470 million. The 1997 embargo did not touch trade.
Saving Workers from Being Cannon Fodder
"Peasants...became industrial soldiers, cannon fodder (and a critical component of China's comparative advantage) for the People's Republic export boom" in the 1980s and 1990s. So writes a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, David Zweig, on the first page of a new book, "Internationalizing China." His characterizing millions of Chinese working men and women as "cannon fodder" is unusually colorful for academic prose, and he does not elaborate on it in his 290-page volume on China's opening to the outside world.
Without using that term, a longtime researcher of China's labor situation, Trini Leung, last month threw light on what "cannon fodder" means. "As China achieved spectacular rates of economic growth during the last decades of the 20th century," she said, "its health and safety record has made nearly as sensational a leap, but in the opposite direction....China is the largest manufacturing center of the world. It is also the deadliest."
In a paper for a conference sponsored by the U.S. Congressional - Executive Commission on China, Ms. Leung, using government statistics, identified the private sector as especially dangerous to the health and safety of workers. About three-fourths of the serious accidents in industrial and mining enterprises occur in the private sector. "It is often cheaper and easier to violate regulations than to observe health and safety standards," she explained. Besides, in the absence of labor and community organizations independent of the government and Communist Party, workers are unable to defend their own interests, she pointed out.
On the positive side, she praised the Chinese media for "playing a crucial role in the past few years in exposing and investigating industrial disasters." Moreover, among the small but growing number of non-governmental organizations in China, "some are working on health and safety issues."
In recent years, foreign governments and international organizations have been "pumping millions of dollars" into China's governmental institutions -- the Labor Ministry, the State council, local governments, the judiciary, and the official unions -- to cope with China's health and safety problems. Still, "the health and safety situation has gone from bad to worse." Ms. Leung advocates a "new strategy," one depends less on strengthening government machinery and more on "partnerships with local interests."
According to Ms. Leung, the U.S. government in 2002 allocated $10 million to help China upgrade its labor standards. This includes $6.4 million in two U.S. Labor Department grants to improve legal protections, including health and safety. According to a Labor Department press release, most of this money will go to "technical assistance activities to strengthen the Chinese government's capacity to develop laws and regulations...."
How To Evaluate China's ProgressWhat is the most important standard to use in making a judgment about how China is faring at this critical time in its history? I offered my views on December 9 at an Open Forum session of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Here's what I had to say.Thank you for this opportunity to explore a crucial issue: how to evaluate progress made in and by China. I’d like to emphasize the importance of using a standard that relies on basics. Jacek Kuron, a Polish intellectual who was also a leader of the Solidarity movement, has provided a guide that meets this test. More than 12 years ago, at a conference not far from here, he outlined the two essential characteristics of totalitarianism.
- First, a “monopoly of organization” – a monopoly in theory “so total [Kuron said] that if citizens gather freely and discuss freely a matter as simple as roof repairs on a block of [condo apartments], this constitutes a challenge to the central authority.”
Chairman Mao went a long way toward doing so before his successors changed course. Unfortunately, although well short of Mao’s terrible extremes, the two basic elements of totalitarianism survive in modern China. As a practical matter, the regime has made selective exceptions to imposing the model in full. One exception that fascinates me is the American Chamber of Commerce in China, headquartered in Beijing.
- Second, “a monopoly on information” – everything in print, and in the electronic media, has to be steered by the central authority. As a practical matter, Kuron added, this ideal, this model, can not be followed in all its fullness.
Freedoms Enjoyed by American Business People
The Chamber enjoys the freedom to organize. Its members number more than 1,550 persons representing more than 750 companies, small and large, throughout China.
It enjoys freedom of information. Through its monthly magazine, through comprehensive analytical reports, and through its Website, the Chamber distributes its views not only among its own members but to many more people outside its ranks, including government officials at various levels. Some of those views are cautiously critical of the Chinese government.
Take its annual White Paper on the “climate” for American business in China. For example, in analyzing labor conditions, it praises “positive developments ... benefiting both international and domestic business,” but it also publicizes a series of complaints, such as that “labor costs in China remain higher than those of many Asian countries, and are rising steadily ...” Or take its latest report on China's compliance with the World Trade Organization accession agreements. It praises China's “serious commitment to meeting its WTO obligations” but also expresses “many specific concerns ... [in] some areas where China may not yet be in full compliance with WTO commitments.”
On its Website, in English and in Chinese, the Chamber publicly provides many other details on how it exists and how it acts as an enclave of non-totalitarianism in China. Indeed, that enclave offers an instructive model for what China must do to free itself fully from the shackles of totalitarianism.
In singling out the Chamber, I am of course not objecting to the freedoms enjoyed by American and other foreign business people in China. It's just that their freedoms stand out in such glaring contrast to how thoroughly, often brutally, the regime in China denies these same freedoms to its own citizens, including its working men and women in factories, fields, and offices.
Such grossly unfair, discriminatory treatment cannot long endure.My comments and those of five other persons, as well as our longer written statements, will be posted on the CECC Website at <http://www.cecc.gov>.Diary: My Human Rights Day Choices
Two Washington events starting at noon on December 10, International Human Rights Day, posed a dilemma for me. Should I attend a luncheon at the Capitol sponsored by the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area? Or should join an anti-Iraq War demonstration scheduled for Lafayette Park across from the White House?
I had already accepted a special invitation to the UN Association luncheon. A group of Washington area people were to receive human rights award there, and I was one of them, thanks to being nominated by the National Capital Area Union Retirees Club. Call it a schedule conflict, or a conflict between principle and vanity. Vanity won.
I had my picture taken accepting the award. So did 26 other awardees, including two friends of mine, Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the International Labor Rights Fund, and Tony Freeman, director of the Washington branch office of the International Labor Organization. It was flattering to be ranked with them. It was also good for my ego to read the citation saying that my award is "for his promotion of worker and human rights over a long and distinguished career emphasizing the plight of women workers in Asia and many years of volunteer work for human rights causes, notably the Child Labor Coalition and the International Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam."
Like Terry and Tony, I brought along promotional material about my work. The Winter 2002 issue of American Educator magazine (circulation 800,000), published by the American Federation of Teachers, will carry two articles of mine, one about the plight of toy workers in China, the other about growing labor activism despite the regime's repression of the right to organize. I gave out a dozen photocopies of advance proofs. (By the time you read this, you should be able to find the articles on the AFT Website. Go to <http://www.aft.org> and click on publications.)
Afterward, I rushed out of the Russell Senate Caucus Room, and splurged $6 on a cab to an intersection near the White House. By that time it was 2:20 p.m., and Lafayette Park was almost deserted. Was the demonstration over? No, it never happened at all, at least not there. I learned this from an elderly woman, Concepcion Picciotti, who, just across the street from the White House, was sitting in a folding chair among a set of anti-nuclear and anti-war placards. She said something about "opportunists," protesters who show up intermittently. She's been there almost every day since August 1, 1981, according to a photocopied article she gave me. She and a male colleague, who has his own anti-nuclear stand just a few feet away, urged me to check their Website, <http://prop1.org>.
After dinner at home that night, I spent only a couple of minutes browsing through its pages. I remembered that I had wanted to search the Cato Institute Website to see whether it contains a policy analysis, "The Empire Strikes Out: The 'New Imperialism' and Its Fatal Flaws," issued on November 26. I did so, and it does.
I am on Cato's mailing list, and usually don't read their documents much beyond the first few lines. This one, 27 pages long, I couldn't put down. Its author, Ivan Eland, director of Cato's defense policy studies, develops a strong case against what might be called the U.S. policy of benevolent imperialism. He warns that, if pursued, the present American geopolitical approach (its overly zealous "strategy of empire") is bound to lead to a decline of the United States as the world superpower. In other words, Eland looks not just at the immediate crisis but at the big picture, something very much worth doing from from time to time, however discomforting it may be.
All the Best During the Christmas Season and Well Beyond!
The forgoing articles do not provide any material for happy reflection during a season that's supposed to be joyous. Sorry. As it is, I haven't had time to provide you with more of the same -- the many articles crying to be written: for example, one about the dismal failure to raise the U.S. minimum wage. These are indeed sad times. But sanity requires seeing the world as it is, and how it could be.
Thank God for Christmas. It helps keep hope alive.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VII-11, December 13, 2002
Robert A. Senser, editor
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. (Send e-mail)
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