Vol. X, Bulletin No. 11                                                     November 3, 2005

Keeping Workers in Sweatshops

Don't count on a report by a social auditing firm to reveal whether an overseas factory is producing clothing or sport shoes under decent working conditions. That's the message of a new study titled "Looking For a Quick Fix: How Weak Social Auditing Is Keeping Workers in Sweatshops."

Based on research in Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, and five other developing countries, the study, released November 2  by the Clean Clothes Campaign, found that the auditing often fails to detect forced overtime, discrimination, abusive treatment, and repression of the right to organize. A major weakness of the process is that ordinarily workers are not consulted, except in front of their supervisors, and so "the reality of the workplace is missed," said Ineke Zeldenrust of the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign.

The study, drawing on the input of 670 workers from 40 factories, charges that audit reports are often "short, superficial, and sloppy," and that the staffs conducting them are "generally unskilled and inexperienced." 

World Trade Agency at the Crossroads

Let me put it plainly.  The World Trade Organization discriminates against working people and in favor of corporate officialdom. It enforces voluminous regulations that protect capital but not labor. Negative reactions to the resulting exploitation are rising, and the WTO ministers convening in Hong Kong next month better pay attention. . 

More than 11,000 people from outside Hong Kong -- 6,000 delegates, 3,000 journalists, and 2,000 representatives from business and nongovernmental organizations -- are expected at the meeting or around its fringes.  That does not count the many thousands from Hong Kong who will be there demonstrating peacefully to "Stop Globalization of Corporate Agenda," as the Hong Kong People's Alliance on WTO puts it. 

The Alliance is a network of 31 local and regional organizations well experienced in making their voices heard in the ex-colony's on-going struggles for democracy. In July 2003 an estimated 500,000 people marched in peaceful protest against a government proposed "anti-subversive" law. It was soon  withdrawn.

Groups affiliated with the Alliance have been preparing for a year now to make sure that their voices will be heard by the mandarins of international trade at their December 13-18 meeting.  Those organizations include the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, the Asian Student Association, and nine migrant worker groups (Hong Kong has over 200,000 domestic workers from other Asian countries).

Hong Kong To Provide Forum for Asian Voices Demanding WTO Reforms

For the first time at a WTO ministerial gathering, Asian voices will predominate in the demand for WTO reforms. They will be there from Asian trade unions, consumer associations, environmental groups, and myriad other nongovernmental organizations, outnumbering the trade unionists, consumer advocates, and others from the United States and non-Asian countries.

It used to be, especially at the 1999 WTO ministerial in Seattle, that the U.S. government caught a lot of flack for its (mostly rhetorical) efforts to put the human rights of workers on the WTO agenda. No danger of that this time.  But don't be surprised if this time Asian trade unions, their workers whipsawed by global trade, move to the fore with demands that the WTO get out of its corporate shell.  And such an initiative would get vigorous support from worker organizations in other parts of the developing world, especially Latin America.

Even negotiations for "agricultural reform," high on the WTO agenda, are ignoring a key dimension -- the interests of the legions of men, women, and children who, comprising 50% to 70% of a developing country's labor force, produce the coffee, tea, cocoa, bananas, rice, and countless other farm products that we import.

Next month you'll be seeing many a media report about "anti-globalization" protests in Hong Kong.  But the protesters aren't opposed to globalization. They have a positive aim: seeking to persuade the WTO, at long last, to recognize the human rights of working men and women.

International Human Rights Day Dec. 10

Mark December 10 on your calendar.  It is celebrated world wide as International Human Rights Day, commemorating the anniversary of the ratification of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

In the United States, as part of International Human Rights Day, the AFL-CIO will take the lead in holding rallies, candlelight vigils, town hall meetings, teach-ins, and other events to demand that workers are guaranteed a fundamental human right: the freedom to have a union voice on the job.

In Canada, December 10 will have special resonance because of a campaign, entitled "Labor Rights Are Human Rights," jointly launched last March by the National Union of Public and General Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada.  A study prepared by the NUPGE, "Collective Bargaining in Canada: Human Right or Canadian Illusion?", details laws dating back to 1982 that have denied or undermined worker rights.

Unions Move To Unify on World Level

It doesn't yet have a name, but a large new international union organization is set to be born next year.  It will embrace both the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the smaller World Confederation of Labor (WCL), plus many unions not affiliated with either.

A WCL congress in Belgium November 21-23 will give its formal approval to joining the new international. Says a policy document prepared for the congress: "Only solidarity will enable us to create a sufficiently strong countervailing power to change the logic of the current globalization."  The ICFTU congress last December approved the transition to the new organization, whose founding congress is scheduled to be held in October 2006 in Vienna.

The two Brussels-based  internationals have engaged in many joint activities in recent years. Notably, they participate together in consultations with officials of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington. A 60-member union delegation, headed by Gus Ryder, ICFTU general secretary, and Willy Thys, WCL general secretary, met with top IMF and Bank officials for three days in October 2004.  Ordinarily, the next biennial high-level meeting would occur in October next year, but it will be delayed because of the Vienna congress. 

The Ethical Gap in Trade Agreements

"The market has its own logic, but it does not have its own ethic," a group of Latin American and North American Catholic Bishops said in a joint communiqué on September 8.  They then laid down an outline of the ethic that ought to prevail in increased global trade.

"[Global trade requires] a strong juridical framework of social institutions that can humanize it and channel the considerable energies of the market for the common good," their communiqué said.  "This moral and juridical framework needs to ensure that intellectual property rights, access to technology and information, transparency and civil society participation, agricultural policies, labor standards, and environmental regulations are each addressed in ways that promote the common good of all, especially the poor."

"Global trade and trade agreements," they added, "must be pursued in ways that strengthen citizen participation and situate economic policy within the wider area of social policies that promote integral human development and strengthen communities."

The implication was that present trade agreements, such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), are failing to comply with this ethic.  The communiqué concluded by quoting from this Jubilee Year statement of Pope John Paul II:

"The more global the market becomes, the more it must be balanced by a culture of solidarity.  Attentive to the needs of the weakest, globalization needs a new culture, new rules, and new institutions at the world level."  (Address to Business and Trade Union Leaders May 2, 2000.)
*   *   *

Bishop: Current Economic Model for Trade 'Excludes People'

In a talk that he gave October 21 to 70 students and faculty members at the University of Washington in Seattle, Bishop Alvaro Ramazzini of San Marcos, Guatemala, took direct aim at CAFTA for focusing on economic development to the exclusion of  human development.  "We have an economic model that excludes people," he said.

Earlier this year Bishop Ramazzini detailed the deficiencies of CAFTA in testimony before the a Congressional subcommittee (see "No Hope for Poor in CAFTA: Bishop").  In Seattle he criticized U.S. and Guatemala government trade negotiators for ignoring the plight of the rural poor, including children as young as eight or nine working on coffee plantations.

Last summer 19 Washington U students met Ramazzini when they visited Guatemala.  At the October session, one of those students, Rachel Taber, who majors in economics and political science, reported on her first-hand observations of conditions in the coffee plantations: children and pregnant women working 12 hours a day for only a dollar or two, for example, and workers in 26 families engaged in a four-year legal battle with plantation owners over unpaid work.

"What is development if it's not making people's everyday rights easier?" Taber asked, as reported in October 24 issue of The Daily of the University of Washington-Seattle in a story headlined "CAFTA Critic: Trade pacts don't cater to human rights."

The Need for Moral Economic Growth

"Economic growth does not automatically improve people's lives, either within nations or internally," the 1992 United Nations Development Program stated. That core economic truth is consistently ignored these days when various authorities, both inside and outside the Bush administration, hail gains in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as unalloyed positive signs for the U.S. economy.

A prominent American economist, Joseph E. Stiglitz, has published a timely reminder that focusing exclusively on GDP growth is an error.  GDP statistics, he writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, "do not really measure how well the country is doing or how much better off its citizens are becoming."   Part of his explanation is this:

"No one would look at just a firm's revenues to assess how well it was doing.  Far more relevant is the balance sheet, which shows assets and liabilities.  That is also true for a country.  Argentina grew rapidly in the early 1990s, mainly as a result of a huge consumption binge financed by international borrowing.  But that growth was not sustainable and was not sustained. 

"Similarly, the United States has been borrowing heavily from abroad, at the rate of $2,000,000,000 a day.  It would be one thing if this were being spent on high-productivity investment.  In fact, it has been used to finance increases in consumption and massive tax cuts for upper-income Americans."

Stiglitz Asks: What Can Be Done To Promote Social Justice and Solidarity?

The question, Stiglitz insists, is not whether one is in favor of growth or against it.  Rather: "The question should be, are there policies that can promote what might be called moral growth -- growth that is sustainable, that increases living standards, not just today but for future generations as well, and that leads to a more tolerant, open society?  Also, what can be done to ensure that the benefits of growth are shared equitably, creating a society with more social justice and solidarity rather than one with deep rifts and cleavages of the kind that became so apparent in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?"

In practice, decisions facing policymakers generally don't involve direct choices on whether to "grow" or not to grow the economy, Stiglitz points out.  Instead, the choices are more specific, such as "whether or not to liberalize capital markets."  On this choice, he writes, "there is ample evidence that the poor bear the brunt of the burden from increased volatility [from closer international integration of short-term capital flows].  In short, this particular aspect of economic integration increases poverty without much affecting growth."

Stiglitz develops these points in the course of a long review essay on a new book, "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," by Benjamin M. Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard.  While not embracing all of Friedman's policy prescriptions, Stiglitz praises his book for being "an important antidote to the populist antigrowth movement and also to those who say that the free market is all we need."

(Human Rights for Workers has long shown a strong affinity with Professor Stiglitz' perspective. See, for example, the lead article, "Cure Inequities, Leading Economist Urges," in the November 1, 2001, issue, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.)

Teaching More Than Enron Ethics

The good news is that business schools today are doing a better job preparing students to cope with the ethical challenges of the global market.  The bad news is that it's not good enough.  That conclusion emerges from the joint report titled "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" issued on October 19 by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute.

On the hand, among the schools in the study's sample, 54% require a course in ethics, corporate social responsibility, or environmental sustainability,  compared with 34% in 2001.  Yet among the nearly 600 MBA schools invited to report on their courses and research, only 91 schools responded.  And even among the best of these, integration of social and economic concerns into accounting, economics, finance, marketing, and strategy is limited, the report shows.

"MBA programs still have a silo mentality when it comes to teaching business ethics as well as social and environmental stewardship," says Judith Samuelson, executive director of Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program.

From its sample of 91 MBA programs on six continents, the "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" study ranked the top 30, 12 of which were outside the United States.  The top five were Stanford, ESADE (Spain), York (Canada), ITESM (Mexico, and Notre Dame.

(For background, see "How Business Schools Teach Enron Ethics.')

Ailing Children: U.S. vs. Bangladesh

"About 50% of children [in Bangladesh] are underweight, making the country one of the most severe cases of malnutrition in the world." -- The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh, October 20.

 "About 15.5% of adolescents (ages 12 to 19) and 15.3% of children (ages 6 to 11) are obese.  The increase in obesity among American youth over the past two decades is dramatic." -- American Obesity Association.

Diary: Catholic-Jewish Neighborliness

My parish church, St. Thomas a Becket in Reston, Virginia, is the next-door neighbor of a Jewish synagogue, the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation.  And, I'm happy to add, the relations between the two communities are very neighborly.  One example is that they have sponsored an annual "interfaith dialogue" for 21 years now.   Usually, at least in recent years, these events occurred during Lent.

Breaking that pattern, we convened  in the Jewish synagogue on Sunday, October 23, which got rid of the impression that attendance was a kind of penance.  In fact, it was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of a Vatican II document -- the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, or Nostra Aetate in Latin -- proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in October 1965.

The theme of that evening's program, was "Why Should Jews and Catholics Engage in Interfaith Dialogue?" Among the answers discussed by the two speakers -- Father John Langan, S.J., professor of Catholic social thought at Georgetown, and Rabbi Jan Katzew, director of Lifelong Learning at the Union of Reform Judaism  --  the  most pointed were found in the Declaration itself. 

Rabbi Katzew had brought with him an ample supply of key excerpts from the Vatican II document, and had helped distribute them himself to the 100 men and women in the audience. He praised it highly as leading to a "seismic change" in the Catholic Church's attitudes to Judaism and the Jewish people.  The sections he quoted at length in his presentation and in the question period included these sentences:
(The October 4 issue of America magazine features articles on the "transforming" impact of Nostra Aetate ["in our time"].  An especially informative article, "The Genesis of Nostra Aetate," chronicles the six-year struggle to make sure that the historic Vatican council of Bishops did not ignore "the Jewish question.")

Incidentally, the neighborliness of my parish and the Hebrew Congregation has a broad reach.  Early next year there will "trialogue" with the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society center, hosted by the synagogue.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. X-11     November 3, 2005
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2005
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