Vol. VIII, Bulletin No. 1. January 20, 2003
Marking Fifth Anniversary of Global March Against Child Labor
Freeing Children: Still Far To Go
"[The campaign against] child labor is being used as a pretext for protectionism by people who want to keep goods made by the poor out of rich world's markets." -- The Economist, August 14, 1993.
The work of a New Delhi-based international organization, the Global March Against Child Labor, is one reason why such crass comments are rare these days. Thanks in large part to the Global March and its partner organizations in 140 countries, awareness of the evils of child labor has never been greater. In marking its fifth anniversary on January 17, the Global March celebrated that progress, but, with some 246 million girls and boys still employed as laborers across the world, it warned: "The gap between awareness and action has never been wider."
In an anniversary statement emailed around the world, Kailash Satyarthi, the charismatic founder and chairperson of the Global March, said:
"Will we sit comfortably in our homes and offices as we watch the life and spirit of countless children disappear before our very eyes? If we fail to act now, we are no less responsible than the worst exploiter."
Satyarthi has long been personally involved in liberating little Indian children from bondage, especially in carpet factories where children live away from home as virtual slaves. He broadened his campaign first to the whole South Asian subcontinent and then to the international level, while not neglecting India itself.
In his column on the Global March's Website, he movingly describes his visit to a poor state in India newly committed to abolishing abusive child labor, both in agriculture and in domestic service, so that children can go to school. "Such success stories," he writes, "keep the hope alive that child labor can and will be eliminated from society. If there is the social and political will, then poverty is definitely no obstacle to solving the menace of child labor."
(For background on Kailash Satyarthi, see "Exploding Child Labor Myths: an Indian's Insights.")
No to Mini-Nafta for Central America
Free trade is like a bicycle; it must keep moving ahead or else it will fall over. So runs a favorite theory of some globalization enthusiasts. But Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S Trade Representative (USTR), has a later theoretical model. For him, free trade is like a jet-propelled motorcycle. To keep it from falling over, he and his U.S government colleagues zoom in and out of Washington promoting trade agreements at breakneck speed at every possible level -- bilateral (country-to-country), regional, subregional, and multilateral (world), with variations in between.
Even as he was supervising trade negotiations at a half dozen points elsewhere in the world, Zoellick met on January 8 with the trade ministers from five Central American counties to officially launch negotiations for a trade and investment agreement covering the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement adds another acronym to the expanding vocabulary of trade jargon: CAFTA. It rhymes with NAFTA, in tune with its purpose to expand the North American [Canadian, Mexican, and U.S.] Free Trade Agreement farther south. CAFTA is being rushed to completion by the end of this year.
Insisting that Worker Concerns Won't Be Ignored
Normally, trade negotiators pay no heed to the concerns of working men and women whose lives are impacted by trade deals. The AFL-CIO and the labor movements of Central America are determined to change that. They are working more closely than ever to monitor the CAFTA negotiations and to demand that the agreement address worker rights and development issues. As things stood at the start of negotiations, said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a January 8 statement, "our governments are pursuing a free-trade agenda that feeds corporate greed but destroys good jobs and hinders real development."
Not one Central American country in the proposed CAFTA comes close to meeting the minimum threshold of respect for the core labor standards of the UN International Labor Organization, Thea Lee, AFL-CIO assistant director for international economics, pointed out in testimony November 19 to a U.S. government inter-departmental group on trade. In fact, in December the AFL-CIO filled petitions with USTR to withdraw preferential trade benefits from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala because of "egregious worker rights violations in these countries."
These proposed sanctions have the support of unions in Central America, which recognize that the granting or withholding of trade preferences are a valuable tool for prodding countries to improve worker rights. But if the proposed free trade agreement goes into effect, this tool will become obsolete. That's one reason why, for the first time, the AFL-CIO and major Central American unions have issued a joint declaration that, among other things:
The declaration, signed by President Sweeney and leaders of unions in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, concludes with this warning: "Our governments should not simply reproduce the model of free trade that increases the power of big corporations while reducing the power of workers, communities, and the democratic structures of our countries....We will fight against any trade agreement that does not achieve this vision of equitable, sustainable, and democratic development for Central America."
- "rejects a simple expansion of the failed model of the North American Free Trade Agreement under which the U.S. has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and Mexico has failed to achieve lasting development or reduced poverty."
- "calls for enforceable protections for worker rights backed by trade sanctions, a more humane immigration regime, debt relief for Central American nations, and transparency in the negotiating process, among other reforms."
Although the full text of the declaration is not available on the AFL-CIO Website, the November 19 statement of Thea Lee on CAFTA provides much background information.
Humane Society of U.S. Is Assisting on 'Trade Capacity Building'
Aware that Central American countries do not have the institutional framework to handle all aspects of the proposed CAFTA, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is setting up programs of "national trade capacity building" in each country. Various government agencies, corporations, and non-governmental groups are cooperating to help the five countries. On January 8 USTR issued its first list of groups preparing to render help in areas such as "Strengthening Trade-Related Information Systems and Regulatory Practices," "Practices Involving Civil Society in the Trade Policy Process," and "Maximizing Opportunities: Small Business and Development." The assisting organization listed in all those three areas is the Humane Society of the United States.(For the Humane Society's areas of concern and expertise, check its Website at <http://www.hsus.org>.)
Unions Have a Role: World Bank
The World Bank is increasingly engaged in dialogue with trade unions at national and international levels. The latest sign of that is a week-long workshop held December in Zambia's capital city, Lusaka, with the participation of union leaders from nine African countries, Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The workshop was co-sponsored by the World Bank's social protection unit, the International Labor Organization's workers' bureau, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany.
A January 7 World Bank press release, titled "Unions Have a Role To Play," states that the workshop "aimed at building the effectiveness and sustainability of national trade union organizations, so that they might contribute constructively to their nations' [poverty reduction strategy]." One labor leader, Fackson Shamenda of Zambia, who is president of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, is quoted as saying: "From a point where [the World Bank] was a no-go area for trade unions, we are now listened to by the big guns in both the Bank and the Fund (IMF)."
Tainted Harvest, Tainted U.S. Policy
A cause for celebration is that, of late, some human rights organizations have come to recognize that worker rights, too, are human rights. Unfortunately, however, this growing recognition has yet to have a significant impact on the international policies of the U.S. government or on the practices abroad of U.S.-based multinational corporations.
Take Human Rights Watch (HRW) and its broader outlook, as demonstrated in its 2001 mission to Ecuador to study labor conditions on banana plantations that grow about a fourth of the bananas eaten in the United States and Europe. In a 114-page report titled "Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations," issued in April 2002, Human Rights Watch charged that plantations supplying bananas to Dole, Chiquita, Del Monte, and other corporations are guilty of "daily" flouting the rights of their 120,000 to 145,000 workers. In violation of some of Ecuador's own law and some corporate codes of conduct:
- "Ecuadorian children as young as eight labor in banana fields and packing plants where they are exposed to toxic pesticides and other unsafe working conditions."
- "Adult workers toil in the same hazardous worksites, often with little or no job security, deterred from organizing for fear of summary dismissal."
- Many (perhaps most) workers are permanently kept in a "temporary" status to deprive them of health insurance, paid vacations, and other legal benefits.
Representatives of Dole and other corporations in Ecuador went so far as to wash their hands of any responsibility for such abuses, according to the Human Rights Watch report. In contradiction to their own corporate policies, they "disclaimed any obligation to demand respect for worker rights on third-party plantations from which they purchase bananas for export."
Anti-Labor Violence Halts Benefits to Ecuador, But Not for Long
To make matters worse, during an organizing campaign at a group of plantations on Ecuador's southwestern coast in May 2002, at least ten workers were shot and more than 120 were fired. "The efforts to stop unions on the banana plantations have been going on for a long time," Human Rights Watch said in a press release, "but now we're seeing a descent into pure thuggery."
Partly because of this newest development, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) delayed granting expanded trade benefits to Ecuador provided by a recently renewed trade preference program for Ecuador called the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act. Before extending those benefits, the U.S. must take into account how a country respects "internationally recognized worker rights, including ... the right of association; the right to organize and bargain collectively ... [and] whether the country has implemented its commitments to eliminate the worst forms of child labor." In September last year, USTR decided that three Andean countries -- Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru -- had met those and other criteria, but that Ecuador had not. Then, on October 31, the eve of the Western Hemisphere's trade ministers summit hosted by Ecuador, USTR announced that Ecuador, too, had qualified for the duty-free benefits.
In a press release titled "U.S. Caves on Labor Rights," Carol Pier, researcher for the Americas division of Human Rights Watch and author of "Tainted Harvest," blasted the decision. "The United States should have demanded real improvements in labor rights before granting Ecuador this prize," she said. "Instead, the United States has rewarded inaction."
About 6,300 Andean products now can enter the U.S. duty free under the Andean Trade Promotion Act. Bananas are not on that list, but they already have duty-free entry under World Trade Organization rules. In 2001 bananas worth $246,296,800 were imported into the United States from Ecuador. In the first three quarters of 2002, the volume increased by 13%.
To Preserve Hong Kong's Freedom
"Only fearful governments implement repressive legislation to inhibit the rights of its citizens," an Australian wrote. "What is your government afraid of?"
That message letter is just one of 1,000 email protests that members of 70 trade unions around the world have showered on Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. A global campaign is rallying solidarity support against a serious threat to the freedoms that Hong Kong has preserved since being absorbed into the People's Republic of China in 1997. The threat comes from the non-elected chief executive's proposal to impose an "anti-subversion" law on Hong Kong. (For background see "Alarm Bells for Hong Kong's Future" in the November issue of HRFW.)
On December 15 more than 20,000 people marched through Hong Kong's streets to demonstrate against the proposal, by which Hong Kong would adopt legislation similar to China's repressive laws. Dramatizing the dangers that could be in store for trade unionists and others in Hong Kong is a trial in China's northeastern city of Liaoyang.
There two labor activists, arrested in March 2002 for organizing protests against wage arrears and corruption at a state-owned enterprise, are facing prison terms for allegedly "subverting the state." At the trial on January 15, one of them was accused of communicating with a "hostile element" -- namely, Han Dong Fang, director of the China Labor Bulletin, who had interviewed the worker for a program of Radio Free Asia. "Hostile elements" would all become targets if China's representative in Hong Kong gets his way.
Web Sightings: Songs about Heroes
Do you know the story of John Henry, probably the most famous worker in U.S. history? You can now listen to his song, "John Henry," on the Web, and learn how this legendary hero inspired solidarity among workers during the Industrial Revolution. By visiting the Website of the American Labor Studies Center, you can also listen to other labor songs and learn much else about the history of the American labor movement.
With its new Website, the center is trying to fill a large gap in the education of Americans young and old. Its main purpose is to provide a wide range of curriculum materials on labor history and labor issues to grade school teachers. But of course those materials are also available to the rest of us, for our enlightenment and even our entertainment, as in the section on the songs of workers.
The center is getting a home in Troy, N.Y., in the Kate Mullaney House, named after a young Irish immigrant who became the first woman to hold office in national union. The center's executive director is Paul Cole, secretary treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.
I first learned of the new Website from the electronic labor education newsletter written and published by Ed Czarnecki, retired associate director of the AFL-CIO Education Department. For more information on this informative initiative, check his Website at http://users.erols.com/czarlab/.
* * *As noted in the December issue of HRFW, the winter issue of the American Educator, published by the American Federation of Teachers, carries two articles of mine, one on toy workers in China, the other on the heroic struggle of China's workers to win the right to organize, plus a sidebar on "What You Can Do." Meanwhile, the January 6 issue of the Jesuit weekly, America, has published an article of mine, "The Delight of Sunday, " which describes the failed campaigns against Sunday shopping and an approach to restoring Sunday to a non-work day. The America Website carries only the first few sentences of the article. I'll post the full text in a future issue of HRFW.
Diary: Celebrating Our Anniversary
After reading my note in the December HRFW that the UN Association of the National Capital Area had given me a human rights award, a friend of mine sent me this email from Malaysia:
Dear Bob: Congratulations. You deserve much more for your great contribution to promote human rights. I only know about violations in my own country and a little about the events in Southeast Asia. Your well researched Bulletin is invaluable to me and I am sure to all those who are interested in human rights for workers....Wish you good health so that you can continue your excellent work. -- G. Rajasekaran, secretary general of the Malaysian Trades Union Congress.Brother Rajasekaran's letter was a very nice anniversary present. With this issue, Human Rights for Workers begins its eighth year. It entered the e-universe on February 11, 1996, and since then has appeared in 120 issues. This is the 121st. During three years, 1997, 1998, and 1999, I managed to put out almost two issues a month, but I couldn't maintain that pace. Since then I've been on a once-a-month plan, with more contents added to each issue to make up, hopefully, for the reduced frequency. I've tried to publish around the first of every month, but sometimes fall behind. This month, for example, I'm especially late, hobbled most of all by a lingering cold and a recurringly sick computer.
Instead of dwelling on those woes, however, I should be concentrating on some New Year's resolutions for improving HRFW. So here are a few:
Many other subjects concern me, of course. For example: the way this generation of Americans is refusing to pay its own bills and is so casually passing a massive burden of debt -- foreign debt, federal debt, household debt, and corporate debt -- on to our children and grandchildren. But I'd better stick to tending my own garden, which has more than enough to keep me busy.
- At a conference in Washington, D.C., about five years ago, a researcher from a think tank in Mexico told me about how workers and their communities in rural Mexico were being devastated by mass imports from government-subsidized corporate farms in the United States. Since then I have collected much material on the plight of Mexico's peasants, caused in part by the U.S.'s unbalanced trade policies. I haven't pursued this subject, but am determined to do so soon.
- In my writings, I try to cover worker rights issues from the perspective of real people. I'm resolved to intensify that approach. Trade and investment issues, important as they are, are plain boring if you write about them only in the context of rules and institutions.
- The main focus of HRFW is on worker rights in the global economy. Yet American workers are integrated into the global economy , and I must pay more attention to how globalization affects them.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. VIII-1, January 20, 2003
Robert A. Senser, editor
firstname.lastname@example.org. (Send e-mail)
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