Vol. XI, Bulletin No. 2 February 2, 2006
Google Now a Partner in China's Censorship
Search-Engine Shows How Corporations Profit
From Global Rights Without Responsibilities
Bowing to China's authoritarian system, Google, the Internet's biggest search-engine, last month agreed to censor search results in China to eliminate anything found objectionable to the government.
Up till now, it was up to government censors alone to block terms and ideas such as "democracy," "human rights," "free Tibet," and "Falung Gong." Now Google will do it for them on its newly created Website, Google.cn. Moreover, the new Google platform will deprive Chinese users of two popular features available on the U.S. site: they will not be able to send email messages or to create blog sites. In return, Google can position itself to gain a larger share of the potentially lucrative Chinese market.
Google officials portrayed their decision as excruciatingly difficult, but wise on balance. Google's senior policy counsel, Andew McLaughlin, explained in a statement: "Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission. Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely."
'Lofty Predictions about Freedom of Expression Have Yet To Come True'
A media watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders, promptly blasted Google's decision. In a statement it added this: "U.S. firms are now bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the Internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking. These firms’ lofty predictions about the future of a free and limitless Internet conveniently hide their unacceptable moral errors."
Google is not alone in knuckling under to Beijing. Yahoo and Microsoft MSN already offer censored search results in China.
Actually, the opportunity -- and the willingness -- of international business to sacrifice principle to profits extends well beyond the search-engine sector of indiustry. It is a viral pattern that afflicts globalization and the businesses that flourish in it. The reason is that, as now written and managed, the global economy's network of rules and regulations bestows on corporations a vast set of global rights and privileges without corresponding global responsibilities.
Those unbalanced rights and privileges are found above all in international trade and investment agreements -- bilateral, regional, and world-wide -- and in the intergovernmental organizations that enforce the agreements. Those regulations and institutions have in common one flaw that stands out. They all are very specific and very diligent in providing effective protection to business, but they ignore other essential factors of the global economy, labor in particular.
Google is only doing what comes naturally in that system. By expanding its operations in China, it is just taking advantage of very well protected rights unmatched by responsibilities. Responsibilities? Where are the world leaders who insist that Google -- and any other multinational -- has responsibilities except to itself and to other businesses?
In the absence of enforceable responsibilities, greed usually prevails, but with special travails, even for Google, as one blogger reports.
Suing Firestone for Forced Labor in Liberia
The Firestone Corporation, the world's largest manufacturer of rubber and rubber products, is the latest target of the International Labor Rights Fund's legal campaign against global corporations committing gross violations of human rights.
In a lawsuit filed late last year in a California federal court, the Fund charges that in Firestone's 240 square-mile plantation in Liberia about 4,000 adults and up to 10,000 children work under conditions of virtual slavery. Those African workers, the suit alleges, "remain trapped by poverty and coercion on a frozen-in-time plantation operated by Firestone in a manner identical to how the plantation was operated when it was first opened by Firestone in 1926....Most of the workers have never been off the plantation and do not even know that...slavery has been abolished."
The class action suit, filed under pseudonyms in behalf of 12 of those workers and their 23 children, as well as the others sharing their plight, names Firestone's parent company, the Japanese-owned Bridgestone Corporation, and various Bridgestone units, including Bridgestone North American Tire, as defendants.
Terry Collingsworth, executive director of the Fund and one of two attorneys filling the case, considers the Firestone case is the "strongest yet"of the lawsuits the Fund has brought under the terms of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which permits non-citizens to seek legal recourse in the U.S. for gross violations against the "law of nations."
In an interview with SocialFunds.com, a personal finance Website devoted to socially responsible lending, Collingsworth said: "The strengths of the [Firestone] case are, unfortunately, the extreme human rights violations on the plantation -- child labor is everywhere and adult forced labor is the norm." Besides, he added, "Firestone owns and operates the plantation, so it can't foist it off on some offshore, foreign [contractor]."
The Fund currently has 10 ATS lawsuits pending against multinational corporations. Early this month I emailed this request to Collingsworth:: "I am searching for some measure of the enormity of the [international] worker rights problems we face....Let's say that human and financial resources were not the problem, and that you could nail all the culprits you could find. How many more lawsuits would ILRF be working on now?"
"On pure ATS/human rights cases," he replied, "there are probably 50 to 60 situations where companies are still aiding and abetting fundamental human rights violations."
An Ethical Compass for Policymakers
Forget all about "ethics rubbish," a faculty advisor told Amartya Sen when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1960s. By making a career choice to ignore that advice, Sen went on to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in 1998. A major reason cited for the award was that "by combining tools from economics and philosophy, he has restored an ethical dimension to the discussion of vital economic problems."
Sen continues in this path-breaking work. On February 24 he will give the keynote address at a colloquium at the Inter-American Development Bank headquarters in Washington. His topic: "the importance of ethics for an effective implementation of policies and projects."
The event, organized by the Bank's "Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics and Development," will commemorate February 24 as "Ethics and Development Day" in the region. The day-long program, opened with remarks by IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, will be transmitted throughout the region by videoconference and the Internet.
Income Inequality Going Up and Up
The income gap between the rich and the poor in the United States grew between 1979 and 2003, and grew significantly more between 2002 and 2003. That's the key finding of a study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued on January 29. The report is based largely on an analysis of the latest income and tax data issued in late December by the Congressional Budget Office.
Income is now more concentrated at the very top of the income spectrum -- among the richest 1% of households -- than in all but five years since the mid-1930s, Isaac Shapiro and Joel Friedman write in the Center's study. They point out that, partly because of the federal tax cuts enacted since 2001, the negative effect is not just on low-income but also on middle-income families.
And the inequality trend is continuing, according to other evidence such as:
Instead of being concerned about the mounting concentration of income, the President and Congress are pushing ahead with cuts in taxes on capital gains and dividends, while at the same time planning to cut programs that assist low- and middle-income households, the Center report notes.
- The top 5% of households had income gains from 2003 to 2004 but most other households had their incomes decline, according to Census data.
- After adjusting for inflation, wages among low- and middle-income workers have fallen since 2003.
- Meanwhile, the compensation of top corporate executives has soared. The CEOs of the nation's 500 largest companies received an aggregate 54% pay raise in 2004, Forbes magazine reported. (Moreover, according to United for a Fair Economy, in 2004 the ratio of CEO compensation to production worker pay ballooned to 431 to 1, compared to the 1990 ratio of 107 to 1.)
A Moral Issue: Raising the Minimum Wage
While the federal minimum wage has now remained frozen at $5.15 an hour for more than eight years, nearly half of U.S. working men and women now live in states and cities where the official minimum pay rate is higher than that set by the federal government. Why so much progress at the below-federal level? Largely because grass-roots campaigns are framing their demands as a basic moral issue and because the public generally supports the cause.
Next steps for the movement (that's what it has become): win over more states and convince Congress and the White House to act.
A feature article in the January 15 issue of the New York Times Magazine by Jon Gartner describes how these campaigns at the local and state levels evolved from a series of failures in the late '90s to a string of 134 victories, including a successful 2004 ballot initiative that raised Florida's state minimum by a dollar to $6.15 an hour even as President George Bush won the state..
It is the emphasis on a decent wage as a moral values issue that has made a big difference between failure and success, according to Jen Kern, a leader of Acorn (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). "This is what moves people to the polls now," Kern says. And moves many legislators too.
"One of the movement's crowning achievements," Gartner writes, occurred in Santa Fe, where the city's minimum wage in January rose to $9.50 an hour, the highest rate in the United States. In Santa Fe, a turning point in an intense conflict over raising the rate came when the proponents began to emphasize that "It's just immoral to pay people $5.15; they can't live on that."
The Times magazine writer credits the pastor of a downtown Santa Fe church that employs 65 people in the parish and school, Father Jerome Martinez, as being particularly persuasive in reinforcing the moral argument. Gartner asked Martinez: was it a difficult decision to support the wage ordinance? He replied:
"It was a no-brainer," he said. "You know, I am not by nature a political person. I have gotten a lot of grief from some people, business owners, who say, 'Father, why don't you stick to religion?' Well, pardon me -- this is religion. The Scripture is full of matters of justice. How can you worship a God that you do not see and then oppress the workers that you do see?"
The next victory may come in the state of New Mexico as a whole. In his January 17 State of the State address, Governor Bill Richardson announced his support for raising the state's minimum wage to $7.50 an hour in phased-in steps that would not preempt Santa Fe's higher minimum. A coalition called New Mexicans for a Fair Wage, in which Acorn is a leading member, is monitoring the proposal's movement through the state legislature to ensure that the law will, among other things, include indexation of the minimum.
What You Can Do To Advance This Cause
Meanwhile, Acorn is also campaigning for Congressional adoption of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005, which would raise the federal minimum to $7.25 in three steps, thus "benefiting 15.5 million workers who keep this country running every day," says Acorn's Action Alert. You can support that initiative by clicking on http://capwiz.com/acorn/issues/alert/?alertid=7758011.
In his article, Gartner speculates that the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2005 "probably won't go anywhere until 2008." You could n make it happen sooner if people like you join the movement.
Supporters of raising the federal minimum includes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches in its "Let Justice Roll" campaign. Further, the website of the Interfaith Worker Justice organization has specific information on what you can do to advance this cause.
10 Years Old, And Going Strong
The first issue of Human Rights for Workers appeared 10 years ago. This is just the sort of anniversary that I could celebrate by reminiscing, looking back at the past decade, and raising questions like:
There, I've asked the questions. Because it's almost time to go to press, however, I won't have time to answer them in this anniversary issue . They'll offer material for articles in the HRFW issues of the next decade.
- Why has there been so little progress in advancing worker rights where it counts -- at the workshop level -- in the developing and developed world, despite so many statements of good intentions?
- Why have I written so much of late on international trade?
- "Development" is such a hazy concept -- what does it mean? Does it mean a two-car garage, with automatic garage door openers, for every family in the world?
- Are there any new ways to make policymakers take action to protect the human rights of workers in the United States and abroad?
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. XI-2 February 2, 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
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