Vol. X, Bulletin No. 2 February 1, 2005
Battling UN Global Norms for Business
Those words reflect the U.S. government's and a leading U.S.. business group's opposition to a proposal that would establish UN global norms for business. They expressed their views in formal submissions to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour.
- "Unfeasible, unnecessary, and counter-productive" -- the United States Council for International Business (USCIB).
- "Doomed from the outset" -- the United States Mission to International Organizations in Geneva.
With a hot potato on her hands, Mrs. Arbour last year invited governments and "non-state actors" to comment on a statement titled "Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Related Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights," or Global Norms for short. (See "Sorting Out Global Responsibilities" in the September 3 HRFW Bulletin.) At the March 14-April 22 meeting of the Commission in Geneva, she will present an analytical report based partly on the more than 90 responses she received.
A major argument against the Global Norms, as expressed in the submission from the International Chamber of Commerce, is that because of the large volume of existing human rights initiatives, "we do not...need yet another initiative or standard on business and human rights."
Blair Government Sees Global Norms as Useful
But the government of the United Kingdom favors "building on what has already been achieved on corporate social responsibility" and working "towards a universally accepted collation and clarification of the minimum standards of behavior expected of companies with regard to human rights."
A nongovernmental organization, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of 275 religious investors from the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant communities in the United States, writes that the UN Global Norms offer "a major step forward." In working with over 50 companies, "we hear from many top managers that it is difficult to understand all the international human rights agreements and how they apply to business."
Another contentious issue is the role of business in promoting human rights. Business "does not have the mandate, authority, or resources to assume what are and should remain the responsibilities and functions of government," says the U.S. Council for International Business, whose membership includes some 300 leading U.S. companies.
German Government Also Has Positive View
But the German government's submission, among others, makes an important distinction: governments indeed have the "main responsibility...for ensuring the protection of human rights" but businesses also should strive for human rights observance "within their own spheres of activity and influence." The submission of the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, a coalition of nine multinational corporations that are experimenting in applying the Norms in their own companies and sectors, makes a convincing case that the Norms help advance "the international debate about business and human rights, [which] is still in its infancy."
What will the Commission of Human Rights decide at its spring meeting? I have no inside information, but it seems very likely that the Global Norms proposal will survive another round of heavy lobbying to kill it. The debate will continue, and that's all to the good for all concerned.
(To keep abreast with the multi-faceted developments in business and human rights, including the Global Norms debate, I know of no better source than the Website of the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, an organization in partnership with Amnesty International.)
Roadblocks to Worker Rights in U.S.
It appeared almost 20 years ago, in a loose-leaf binder, a format too modest to be called a "publication." As the editor, I called it a handbook, as in its title, "Handbook for Trade Union and Other Human Rights," subtitled "Source Material on Universal Rights Affecting Working Men and Women." Its forward by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, excerpted from one of his speeches, explained the human and political values involved:
"Freedom of association is a universal human right. To suppress it is to cripple workingmen and women, as well as the country in which they live, developed or developing, East or West, North or South.
"The right to organize is essential to healthy economic and political development. It is the foundation of all other human rights. For without the right to band together in self-defense, the people are powerless to defend their rights to free speech, free worship, free elections, free emigration, or any other right that the strong might take from the weak."
There followed 85 pages, mostly devoted to the texts of 16 conventions of the UN's International Labor Organization, starting with five on the right to organize, plus practical suggestions on how to work for those rights. The Asian-American Free Labor Institute, an AFL-CIO branch for which I then worked as a program officer, distributed the handbook to unions in Asia as well to affiliates in the United States.
The handbook made a small contribution to promoting two ideas then still deemed radical: that worker rights are human rights and that they should be respected as such in public policy, both nationally and internationally. Today those key ideas are promulgated not just by the AFL-CIO and the international labor movement generally but by influential human rights organizations that back in 1986 had a narrower perspective on human rights.
Human Rights Watch Corrects a Blind Spot
Among those groups, none has progressed further than the New York City-based Human Rights Watch. (See "Correcting a Human Rights Blind Spot" in the August 1, 2003, issue of Human Rights for Workers.) It broke new ground in August 2000 with a study titled Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States under International Human Rights Standards by Lance Compa, teacher, writer, former union official, and longtime worker rights activist.
The 217-page report, as Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said in a press release, described in heavily researched detail how "the cards are stacked against workers in the United States." That in itself was a major achievement, but Compa did more than that.
He marshaled the legal, moral, and other talents of Human Rights Watch to analyze how the state of worker rights in the United States often conflicted with the values that, thanks partly to U.S. leadership, are enshrined in the international human rights norms of the United Nations and the International Labor Organization.
Unfair Advantage Report Is Now in Book Form, With Updates
Cornell University Press has now given Unfair Advantage a wider audience by publishing it as a paperback. Compa contributes two new chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. "The reality of labor law and practice in the United States," he writes, "...has not changed much since the report's initial publication in 2000."
Despite the fact that "many workers who try to exercise the right to organize still suffer widespread harassment, threats, spying, and dismissals for their efforts," he considers it "remarkable that each year hundreds of thousands of workers overcome those obstacles to form new local unions in U.S. workplaces." He knows why:
"The organizing impulse springs from a bedrock of human need for association in a common purpose to make things better, as corny as that sounds and amid predominantly individualistic social pressures. Polls indicate that more than 40,000,000 workers would join unions immediately in their workplaces if they did not risk reprisals from employers."
What if there were a wider appreciation of worker rights as human rights? Would that change U.S. law and practice? No, that alone won't bring about change, Compa says in the book's final paragraphs. "A human rights approach brings a new dimension that [and new allies who] can begin a process of change -- can, not 'will,' and begin, not 'finish.' ...Changing the climate is a necessary prelude to changing law, policy, and practice."
Embedding Human Rights in U.S. Trade Policy
So, if a greater understanding of human rights is insufficient, are there other climactic changes needed to make progress on worker rights? Answering that crucial question is beyond the scope of this particular Human Rights Watch report and book. One answer, in my view, is to expose "free trade" for what it is -- an ideology that corrodes U.S. foreign and domestic policy.
And in this arena, unwisely ignored by many social justice groups, Human Rights Watch is also making a values-based contribution. In the last three years it has issued three statements exposing the unfairness of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the last being its March 2004 briefing paper titled "CAFTA's Weak Labor Rights Protections: Why the Present Accord Should Be Opposed." (see a brief article, "Trade Pact Flawed: Human Rights Watch," in the March 22 issue of Human Rights for Workers).
* * *
Human Rights Watch Revisits 'The Jungle'
"They love you if you're healthy and work like a dog, but if you get hurt you are trash....They will look for a way to get rid of you before they report [the injury to authorities]. They will find a reason to fire you, or put you on a worse job...or change your shift so you quit. So a lot of people don't report their injuries. They just work with the pain."
That was the testimony of a Nebraska Beef plant worker interviewed in Omaha for a new Human Rights Watch report, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants. With an injury rate more than three times that of U.S. private industry over all, "meatpacking is the most dangerous factory job in America," says Lance Compa, author of the report and a labor researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Dangerous conditions are cheaper for companies -- and the government does next to nothing."
Besides inflicting dangerous working conditions, the industry generally hampers its workers by its aggressive hostility to unions. Workers who "try to form trade unions and bargain collectively are spied on, harassed, pressured, threatened, suspended, fired, deported, or otherwise victimized for their exercise of the right to freedom of association," the report states. "Labor laws that are supposed to protect worker rights have fundamental gaps, and government agencies fail to enforce effectively those laws that do purport to protect workers' rights."
Special Vulnerability of Immigrant Workers Highlighted
Immigrant workers, who form a large part of the industry's work force, are especially vulnerable, the report emphasizes. First of all, most are unaware of their rights, and then because many are here illegally, or have undocumented family members, they are afraid to make their grievances known to government authorities. "Employers take advantage of these fears to keep workers in abusive conditions that violate basic human rights and labor rights," the report states.
Field research for the report concentrated on beef packing in Nebraska, hog slaughtering in North Carolina, and poultry processing in Arkansas, with a close look at Tyson Foods Inc., Smithfield Foods Inc., and Nebraska Beef Ltd.
"Every country has its horrors," Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program at Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times, "and this industry is one of the horrors in the United States."
How To End Modern Horrors of This Major Industry
Upton Sinclair's classic novel "The Jungle" exposed the horrors of meat-packing plants a century ago, and the shocked public reaction led directly to the rapid passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. Blood, Sweat, and Fear has a whole chapter containing detailed recommendations on how employers, the Congress, the executive branch, and state governments can end the industry's current horrors. Among its 11 recommendations to Congress, for example, are these two:
- Enact the Wrongful Death Accountability Act to strengthen criminal penalties for willful violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that cause worker fatalities. Currently, willful violations resulting in death are nothing more than misdemeanors with a maximum sentence of six months.
This is the season when many religious publications recommend spiritual books to read during Lent. Blood, Sweat, and Fear belongs on that list, at least for people striving for a spirituality that has genuine Biblical roots, particularly in the Lord's foretelling of Judgment Day (Matthew 26, 31-40).
- Enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) amending the National Labor Relations Act to provide stronger protection for workers’ freedom of association and stronger remedies for violations. The EFCA provides for the determination of workers’ choice of bargaining representatives by an orderly, non-adversarial process of signing cards to authorize union bargaining instead of the fear-filled and delay-ridden NLRB election process; a neutral arbitration system for first-contract bargaining impasses in newly-organized workplaces; stronger penalties for violations of the Act; and more vigorous use of injunctive remedies to have unfairly dismissed workers reinstated to their jobs quickly, instead of waiting years while employers appeal their cases.
Make Bush's Freedom Rhetoric Come True
The inauguration ceremonies of Presidents, Republican or Democrat, don't impress me. The pomp and circumstance of those prolonged events contribute to the dangerous trend of gradually transforming the Presidency into royalty. Still, because my wife wanted to watch President Bush's swearing-in and inaugural address, I sat there, morning paper in hand, keeping an eye on the TV screen.
Soon I put the paper aside. I started listening closely to the inaugural address. Bush's words, his ideas about America's global role, tumbled out faster than I could absorb them: "the expansion of freedom in all the world".... "support democratic movements in every nation"...."use America's influence in freedom's cause"..."to all who live in tyranny, we will stand with you...." When he mentioned "jailed dissidents," I clapped.
I couldn't help thinking of a 62-year-old Vietnamese man locked up in a prison camp in the northern-most, and coldest, part of Vietnam. Nguyen Dan Que, writer and medical doctor, is a freedom fighter of the highest order who had already spent 20 years in prison before his latest arrest two years ago. At that time he was emailing information abroad refuting the government's claim that freedom of information exists in Vietnam. Ironically, the People's Court in Saigon proved his point by sentencing him to two and a half years in jail. He is now kept in solitary confinement, to ensure that his ideas don't infect his fellow-prisoners.
Requiring 'Decent Treatment of Their Own People'
"We will encourage reform in other governments," Bush said, "by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people." He devoted more than two thirds of his address to emphasizing that theme.
Is Bush serious? That day some TV pundits expressed skepticism about proclaiming and promoting "liberty throughout the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof." And, as newspapers reported in the following days, White House officials were soon "clarifying" the speech, implying that President didn't quite mean what he said. One such report, in the Washington Post of Saturday, the 22nd, prompted me to dash off the following email to the Post:
re: "Bush Speech Not a Sign of Policy Shift, Officials Say" - headlineMy letter, exactly as written, was one of five that appeared in the letters to the editor column of the Post on Monday, January 24, under the heading "Assessing the Inaugural." Three letters dealt with the inaugural address' emphasis on global freedom. Mine was the only one endorsing that message.
on Washington Post's 1/22 page one story
You write that the President's inaugural address on global freedom
"excited his neoconservative supporters," but it excited many others
too -- me, for one. I applaud, for example, his pledge that "we will
encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in
our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people."
Now some White House officials seem to be backtracking. But President
Bush is widely admired for being a man of his word. I pray he lives up
to that reputation.
My point would have been stronger if I had challenged Bush to take some concrete steps to clarify his policy -- for example, by nudging the government of Vietnam to free the heroic Dr. Nguyen Dan Que.
How China Has Impacted U.S. Jobs
The huge increase in the U.S. trade deficiit with China between 1989 and 2003 caused the displacement of production that supported 1,500,000 American jobs, says a new study by Robert E. Scott, international economist of the Economic Policy Institute. The loss has more than doubled since China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001.
China's entry into the WTO was supposed to lead to "sufficiently rapid growth in U.S. exports to reduce the trade deficit with China," Dr. Scott writes, and provides the data that contradicts the pro-WTO hype.
Another major finding of the study, U.S.-China Trade, 1989-2003: Impact on Jobs and Industries, Nationally and State-by-State, prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission: "China's exports to the U.S. of electronics, computers, and communications equipment, along with other products that use more highly skilled labor and advanced technologies, are growing much faster than its exports of low-value, labor-intensive items such as apparel, shoes, and plastic products."
The study is worth reading in conjunction with Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in China, a new report by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Among its insights is this one from Robert Rosoff, an analyist writing for the U.S.-China Business Council: "Labor rights violations are so widespread in China that violations can be presumed to exist in every factory until proven otherwise."
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-2 February 1, 2005
Robert A. Senser, editor
Back to Home Page