Vol. IX, Bulletin No.2 February 2, 2004
He Fought for the Rights of Cambodia's 200,000 Garment Workers
Anti-Sweatshop Leader Murdered
Phone calls had warned him that he was marked for assassination, and it came true one bright morning last month. Chea Vichea, 36, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was shot to death on Jan. 22 while reading a newspaper in the center of Phnom Penh.
Later that day, in statements strongly condemning the murder, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh and the State Department spokesman in Washington called Vichea "a champion of labor rights and the free trade movement in Cambodia, which the United States strongly supports." Vichea had worked closely with the Embassy, the AFL-CIO, and the UN International Labor Organization in an innovative trade-related program to rid the Cambodian garment industry of its sweatshops.
Ironically, in a column from Phnom Penh published the week before Vichea's death, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, extolled sweatshops as instruments of progress. "The fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia," he wrote, "is not that sweatshops exploit too many workers; it's that they don't exploit enough." Kristof held up Cambodia as proof for his oft-expressed claim that linking international labor standards and trade is a disguised form of protectionism.
Disproving the Theory That Sweatshops Are Necessary
That's nonsense, and Cambodia's recent experience proves it. In this latest column, as in previous writings, Kristof assumes that sweatshops are inevitable in poor countries and that they are necessary initial steps in economic development.
But Cambodia's garment industry, which employs more than 200,000 workers, 90% of them young women, disproves his assumptions. Factories in poor countries need not be sweatshops, and Vichea had dedicated his life to getting rid of them in the largest private sector employer in Cambodia, the garment industry.
Vichea had help, of course. In 1997 the AFL-CIO and the U.S. garment union UNITE, with the support of Vichea and the new unions in Cambodia, filed a complaint with the U.S. government charging that, in violation of U.S. law, Cambodia was benefiting from exports to the United States while failing to enforce the rights of workers. As a result, in 1999 the two governments signed a new bilateral trade agreement, first of its kind, giving Cambodia increased access to the vast U.S. clothing market for enforcing its own labor laws and having the UN International Labor Organization monitor compliance.
New Jobs Created by Trade Agreement Linked to Worker Rights
The garment industry soon boomed. In four years it gained more than 100,000 new jobs, about half of them directly traceable to the new trade agreement.
Although sweatshop conditions still exist in the industry, they are on a sharp decline. According to the ILO monitoring team's report on its latest inspection of 61 garment factories:
Another key finding: "Freedom of association, including anti-union discrimination, is a problem in some factories." A more positive way of describing the situation: freedom of association exists in an industry where it never existed before.
- Sexual harassment and other forms of abuses against women have largely disappeared.
- Child labor, which once plagued the industry, has also almost completely disappeared.
- Compulsory overtime has diminished.
A book published by the Institute for International Economics (IIE), "Can Labor Standards Improve Under Globalization?," answers the title's question with a Yes, If -- if "forward-looking multinationals," the world trading community, and others make "concerted efforts" to do so. The U.S.-Cambodian trade agreement is among the concerted efforts cited by the authors, Kimberly Ann Elliott of the Institute and Richard B. Freeman of Harvard and the London School of Economics. They write that the Cambodian Garment Manufacturers Assn. "appears committed to the program of improving standards and monitoring results. It hopes this will give Cambodia a reputation for good standards and stable industrial relations that will appeal to brand-name buyers."
'Disguised Protectionism' Claim False -- and Slanderous
Moreover, after looking at the evidence from various anti-sweatshop campaigns, Elliott and Freeman dismiss the charge of "disguised protectionism" as false. I for one would go further: The charge of "disguised protectionism" is a vicious slander against all the good people who, rejecting the inevitability of sweatshops, work to eliminate child labor and other abuses that afflict too many factories in the global economy. It is an ill-timed slander against Chea Vichea.
His murder shocked Cambodians and the many foreign friends of Cambodian workers. Perhaps this tragedy will shock policymakers to learn enough from the "concerted efforts" for Cambodia to find new ways to advance the human rights cause for which Chea Vichea died.
Business Norms on UN's Agenda
The global norms for business adopted by the subcommission of the UN Commission on Human Rights, if endorsed by the whole commission, would stimulate initiatives like the program to eliminate sweatshops in Cambodia. The position of the U.S. government member of the commission, which meets in Geneva for three weeks starting on March 15, will be closely watched by both the business and human rights organizations.
The U.S. Council for International Business has been strongly lobbying the U.S. government to oppose the norms because, among other reasons, it considers that there are already more than enough international standards for business.
From another perspective, 15 national and international human rights organizations, including the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, have in a joint statement approved the norms for "pulling together into one document the key international human rights laws, standards, and best practices applying to all business."
In a BBC discussion broadcast last August, Professor David Weissbrodt, a principal author of the norms, cited an interesting statistic: Of the 75,000 multinational corporations in the world, only about 1,000 of them have signed on to the UN Global Compact on human rights, launched by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan three and a half years ago. The latest count of corporate adherents, as announced by Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum last month, is 1,200.
(For background see "Global Norms Put Heat on Business" in the January issue of Human Rights for Workers. See also the subcommission's own commentary on the global norms for business.)
Corporate Social Responsibility Unmasked
"The world biggest company [Wal-Mart]...is seeking to hang on to its image as America's friendly hometown merchant. It is stepping up its slate of feel-good television ads, with more spots featuring happy employees as well as examples of Wal-Mart's community involvement." -- Washington Post article, Jan. 24, under the headline Wal-Mart Moves To Enhance Its Public Image.
"The image of multinational companies working hard to make the world a better place is often just that --- an image....What's needed are new laws to make businesses responsible for protecting human rights and the environment wherever they work." -- Behind the Mask: the Real Face of Corporate Social Responsibility, a comprehensive report issued Jan. 21 by Christian Aid, the relief and aid agency of 40 Protestant denominations in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Good News: David Beats Goliath Again
I shouted "Hooray!" over and over again when I read the press release on my computer screen. If my wife had been at home at the time, she probably would have rushed into my room to see whether I had won the lottery.
The cause of my happy outburst was the news out of Sylacauga, Alabama, a town of 15,000 people. There the workers in a foreign-owned plant soundly defeated a management move to oust their union. Why get excited by that? Well, I've been tracking the ups and downs of that union since late 1999, and so, during the week of the assassination in Cambodia, the good news sent my spirits soaring..
Three years ago I wrote a long article that I titled "Playing Global Catch-Up," which was published in the July-August 2001 issue of the Foreign Service Journal under the title "Can Labor Catch Up with Globalization?" It described the initiatives that the world's labor movements were taking to cope with that new reality, the global economy -- an important subject, but not a topic that fascinates many. To add a more human dimension to the story, I focused the first fourth of the article on a drama centered on workers in Sylacauga, who were demanding that their multinational company, Imerys, a producer of construction materials, recognize their union.
Small Union in Alabama as David Vs. Corporate Giant in Paris
"It had the earmarks of a David and Goliath confrontation," I wrote. "Here was a little local union in the little Alabama town of Sylacauga taking on a giant multinational based in Paris."
The workers won. Voting in a June 2000 secret election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), they cast ballots 205 to 181 in favor of their union, Local 3516 of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy International Union (PACE) of the AFL-CIO. But this story did not end there. It had a sequel. At its first opportunity, Imerys took advantage of a klinker in U.S. law that allows management to launch a "decertification" campaign -- a formal way to kick the union out of the plant. So on Jan. 21 this year, Imerys workers had to vote in an NLRB election again. And they voted for their union again, this time by a larger margin, 233 to 108.
The victories did not come easy. In its prolonged struggles, Local 3516 needed, and got, massive solidarity support from a global union, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine, and General Workers' Unions (ICEM), with which PACE is affiliated. (Sorry about all the acronyms; they certainly don't speed up a story. Anyway.)
In August last year, Keith Fulbright, president of Local 3516, flew to Norway to speak at the ICEM world congress to thank the federation and its allies for their generous solidarity support and to explain why it was so greatly needed. Fulbright described some of pre-election (2000) pressures that Imerys wouldn't dare apply in its French and British plants:
Prior to this month's election, Imerys still held workers as captive audiences in anti-union sessions and sent anti-union mailings to their homes. But this time the company's pressures were less intense than before the 2000 election.
- A group of men with green shirts labeled "Goon Squad" created a climate of fear by roaming through the plant to scare likely union supporters.
- Workers were required to watch propaganda films showing workers being beaten and terrorized in mafia-controlled unions.
- The plant superintendent told Fulbright that "if I didn't shut my mouth, I would lose my job, and did I understand what I was doing...Not only was I going to destroy the company that I worked for, but the town I lived in."
- "My wife, my children, had threats. I got shot at once, going down the highway. It wasn't even safe to come out of the union hall."
"Unfortunately," President Fulbright of Local 3516 said in a union press release, "local management is still intent on destroying any relationship with their employees. However, the union still intends to work hard to build a partnership with Imerys. Imerys' ethics must change, and we will not bend to harassment and intimidation."
Collective bargaining negotiations between the two sides are beginning soon. Local 3516's brothers and sisters in ICEM and beyond will be watching.
* * *What Does This Corporation's Commitment to Ethics Mean?
As part of its policies on "sustainable development," Imerys' headquarters in Paris has a position on ethical standards that reads as follows:
"The obligation to comply with regulations and legislation in force is asserted and strengthened through the commitment of both Imerys and its subcontractors to abide with the basic principles defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in its declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and [the] 1999 Convention on Child Labor."A new report by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions throws light on some of the U.S "regulations and legislation in force" that let anti-unionism flourish here.
Assailing Trade Pact He Had Advocated
Joseph E. Stiglitz, who ten years ago, as a member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, strongly promoted the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now says it hasn't worked out as promised. As a result, he is opposed to the Bush administration's plan to extend it to the rest of North and South America through the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). He insists that the FTAA would be "an unfair trade treaty."
The 1993 trade agreement covering Canada, Mexico, and the United States was passed without "a full and open debate of [its] consequences," Stiglitz writes in "The Broken Promise of NAFTA," published in the Jan. 6 issue of the New York Times. His article is obviously designed to provoke discussion at this time, when "the United States [government] is bullying the weaker countries of Central and South America into accepting its terms."
Business Gets Rights It Failed To Gain Through Normal Processes
As Stiglitz now sees it, NAFTA is one-sided in the generous benefits it bestows on business and capital, particularly a "new set of rights" achieved by the treaty route instead of the normal legislative process, and enforced with sanctions by secret tribunals instead of open door procedures:
"Under NAFTA, if foreign investors believe they are being harmed by regulations (no matter how well justified), they may sue for damages in special tribunals without the transparency afforded by normal judicial proceedings. If successful, they receive direct compensation from the federal government. Environmental, health and safety regulations have been attacked and put into jeopardy....
"Conservatives have long sought to receive compensation for regulations that hurt them, and American courts and Congress have usually rejected these attempts. Now businesses may have accomplished indirectly, through treaty, what they could not get more openly through the democratic political process. Meanwhile, those harmed by the actions of foreign firms, for instance by what they do to the environment, do not have comparable protections of appealing to an international tribunal and receiving compensation."
Countries Being Pressured To Adopt Discredited Policies
Turning to other issues in the current negotiations for FTAA, and for a range of other trade agreements as well, Stiglitz faults the U.S. government for refusing to discuss agriculture and non-tariff barriers, while at the same time pressing "Latin American countries to compromise their national sovereignties and to agree to investor 'protections.'"
He attacks the U.S. demand that "countries fully liberalize their capital markets even as the International Monetary Fund has finally found that such liberalization promotes neither growth nor stabilization in developing countries."
Stiglitz' analysis of NAFTA and FTAA clashes with the conventional "free trade" beliefs espoused by most U.S. economists, embraced by Democratic and Republican administrations, and now being promulgated globally by U.S. government trade officials.
Stiglitz is not completely alone. Dan Rodrik of Harvard and a few lesser known economists have taken a hard look at the modern reality of globalization, and are questioning whether the theory of free trade, formulated two centuries ago, is valid in a radically changed world.
(For a new report on NAFTA, visit the Website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. For information on the Free Trade Area of the Americas, check the Website of Global Trade Watch.)
Economist Takes On the WTO Too
The U.S. media ignored the World Social Forum held in Bombay, India, from Jan. 16 to 21. Even the New York Times paid very little attention to it. That's unfortunate. U.S. coverage of that event, attended by 80,000 people and hundreds of organizations often dismissed as "anti-globalization," could have helped educate Americans to an important fact: that the brand of globalization being promoted by the United States government is not the only -- or the best -- way of running the global economy.
Among the instructive features of the Forum was the participation of Economics Professor Joseph Stiglitz as a panel member of a seminar on "Globalization, Economic and Social Security" on Jan. 19. He broadened his usual critique of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to include the shortcomings of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
All Three Agencies 'Hurting Interests of Millions of Workers'
Stiglitz charged all those intergovernmental institutions with being "responsible for hurting the interests of millions of workers, including those who live in the rich countries like the United States," in the words of an article published Jan. 20 in the Jakarta Post (but no longer available on the newspaper's Website). The Post's Evi Mariani, writing from the Forum, quoted Stiglitz as saying: "The WTO should not push for capital market globalization because this will increase [economic and social] insecurity. And that will not be the answer for economic growth in the developing countries."
(The Post's article featured not Stiglitz but the leader of the National Federation of Indonesian Labor Unions (FNBI), Dita Sari. She stressed the need for "solidarity [support] from public pressure groups in the industrialized countries to support labor movements in developing countries," Mariani reported.)
In an interview from Bombay published in the Jan 20 issue of France's Le Monde, Stiglitz denied the accusation, often voiced at the Forum, that the U.S. has become imperialistic, in the sense of 19th century colonialism.
"On the other hand," he added, "it is certain that the United States uses its economic and military superiority in the service of its own interests and to the detriment of other countries. That's even more so since the election of George Bush. The President speaks much of democracy. But unilateralism is not compatible with democracy, and that poses a real problem for which we have examples in the functioning of institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization." (This is my translation of the French text.)
Drugging the Free Market
Jeff Ballinger, worker rights activist and director of Press for Change, is now in Italy helping to develop a worker rights Website at the human rights center of Pisa University. My thanks to him for calling my attention to the following letter in the Jan. 8 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune:
To the Editor:
A car company can move its factories to Mexico and claim it's a free market. A toy company can outsource to a Chinese subcontractor and claim it's a free market. A major bank can incorporate in Bermuda to avoid taxes and claim it's a free market. We can buy printers made in Mexico. We can buy shirts made in Bangladesh. We can purchase almost anything we want from many different countries, but heaven help the elderly who dare to buy their prescription drugs from a Canadian (or Mexican) pharmacy. That's called un-American!
And you think the pharmaceutical companies don't have a powerful lobby? Think again!
--Jim Beveridge, Springville, Utah
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IX-2 February 2, 2004
Robert A. Senser, editor
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