XI, Bulletin No. 4
April 3, 2006
LABOR UNREST SHOCKS VIETNAM
Workers Launch Series of Wildcat Strikes,
Boldly Demand Dissolution of Government's 'Unions'
In an unprecedented challenge to the ruling Communist Party of the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam, 11
worker representatives are pressing the government to restore "the
legitimate rights" of Vietnam's working men and women. In a
bearing the 11 workers' signatures and places of work, they demanded
dissolution of the Party/state-controlled labor organization and the
elimination of Party cells from the private factories where they
Their statement, issued in February, followed a January wave of
unauthorized strikes in manufacturing plants producing
for export. Estimates on
the numbers of workers involved range from 20,000 to 60,000 in
all sections of the country.
"The government was caught by surprise at how angry the employees were
over their low wages," Thuyen Nguyen, a worker rights activist in San
Francisco who has extensive contacts in Vietnam, told reporters for the
In response to the strikes, the government announced in
would increase the federally mandated minimum wage from $40 to $55 a
Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city and by lesser amounts in smaller cities,
effective April 1 -- a delay that prompted further wildcat
strikes. But worker discontent went beyond low pay.
Workers Assert Their Right To
Organize and To Protest Abuses
U.S. media reporting on events in Vietnam is paper-thin. It
took a Vietnamese-language newspaper in California to disclose the
information to the U.S. public about the daring worker declaration.
Apart from insisting
organizations get out of their factories, the declaration also:
Vietnam ranks among the Southeastern Asia's lowest in the wages and
benefits that it provides its working men and women.
American companies that contract out work to factories in Vietnam
claim, perhaps correctly, that they provide better conditions than
found at other local plants. But that did not prevent many
workers from going on strike.
- Asserted the rights to meet
together, to organize themselves, to protest against abuses, and to
go on strike for benefits denied them.
- Demanded an end to pay deductions for the Vietnamese General
Confederation of Labor.
Fate of Strikers and Strike Leaders
At this time it is not clear whether the government has taken any
retaliatory action against the strikers or against the 11 workers who
risked signing the February declaration. Vietnam normally does
treat dissenters with kindness. In fact, it often punishes them
with prison and house arrest.
According to U.S. government records, Vietnam currently inflicts such
punishments on at least 22 persons for political or religious
reasons: six are in prison and 16 others are in some other form of
detention, such as house arrest. One of the prisoners is a
physician, Dr. Pham Hong Son, whom the government convicted of
"espionage" for translating an essay on democracy from a Department of
"I bluntly told GVN officials that the American people will not
understand why a country that wants to have better relations with us
would imprison someone for translating an article on democracy,"
Barry Lowenkron, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human
rights, and labor, who visited Vietnam in February, testified
before a House subcommittee on March 29. He was providing an
update on official meetings called the "U.S.-Vietnam "Human Rights
It is time to be somewhat blunter. Dialogue is fine, but by
itself it does not carry any weight, especially not when dealing with a
Communist power. But the U.S. does have opportunities to be more
effective in using its influence.
Using American Influence for
Universal Freedom and Human Rights
At present, for example, the United States and the Vietnam are
engaged in negotiations over the terms of Vietnam's
accession to the World Trade Organization. It is true,
shamefully so, that the WTO agenda excludes human rights issues, but
there is no reason why they could not be raised in a corridor dialogue.
Say about the wisdom of releasing the likes of Dr. Pham Hong Son and of
respecting Vietnamese worker demands for freedom.
believe that American Presidents ought to confidently use American
influence for the good of the world, and that includes demanding
universal liberty and human rights and human dignity."
-- President George W. Bush at Freedom House conference in
Washington, D.C., on March 29.
How Trade Grows U.S. Trade Deficit
The AFL-CIO is pressing for a moratorium on new trade agreements "until
we can rewrite them to protect and advance workers' interests."
"While every trade deal is sold as a market-opening agreement, the
reality is that each new agreement just digs deeper into the hole we're
in," the AFL-CIO executive council said in a statement adopted at its
meeting in San Diego on February 27. The council charged that using "a
false model for trade -- excessive protection of corporate rights and
a flimsy fig leaf for workers, farmers, and the environment" -- has
produced these negative results on the U.S. trade deficit::
The AFL-CIO proposed that Congress levy "a temporary import surcharge
to help bring our trade deficit under control." The full text of
the statement, "Time
for Bold Action on Trade," is available online.
- "Our trade deficit with NAFTA [North American Free Trade
Agreement] partners has grown fourteenfold since we entered into NAFTA
- "Our deficit with China has more than doubled since the grant
of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) in 1995."
- "Our global trade deficit has grown eightfold since we helped
create the WTO in 1995."
Reebok's Revealing Human Rights Report
Reebok's 2005 human rights report opens with this affirmation: "For
nearly two decades, human rights have been an integral part of our
culture and a great source of pride for us." But will its human
rights work survive now that U.S.-based Reebok has merged with
Germany's leading designer and marketer of sports footwear and apparel,
Anticipating that question, Paul Fireman, Reebok International chairman
and CEO, who agreed to sell Reebok to adidas for $3,800,000,000, writes
in the human rights report: "As an ally in the on-going and important
effort to protect the rights of workers, adidas also holds many of the
same values that we have here at Reebok. By joining together, our
ability to continue to make progress....will only increase."
The future, however, is never certain, especially not in the
world of international
commerce and finance. In the meantime, the
Rebook human rights report, for all its emphasis on the "considerable
progress" made, reveals the difficulties inherent in trying to
integrate worker rights into an immense commercial structure. In
Reebok's case, that's a global supply
chain that reaches across 50 countries,
from Albania to Zimbabwe, involving 725 factories owned by other firms,
with more than 500,000 workers who cut,
sew, screen-print, embroider, dye, stock-fit, wash, assemble, package,
and perform other tasks to make goods that display the Reebok,
CCM, Jofa, Koho, and Greg Norman brand labels.
"As a company operating in the global
marketplace, we believe we have
an obligation to act in a socially responsible way," Reebok says in its
report. To fulfill that obligation in its myriad business operations,
it has created a large human rights policymaking, monitoring,
enforcement, record-keeping, and educational infrastructure.
Human Rights Program Remains a
Despite that large infrastructure, says Reebok, "full integration of
human rights guidelines...is a
work-in-progress." For one thing, Reebok's human rights
guidelines have not been extended to its Greg Norman or other
names, which accounted for 10% of Reebok's 2004 revenues. A
small matter perhaps, but it does prompt some questions,
capsulized into one: "Could Reebok be dreaming an impossible
After all, Reebok has been trying to bring human rights reforms to
quite a universe: to about 725
factories that it does not own, with a half million workers and
managers that it does not employ, often in countries with basic values
Reebok does not share. Take China.
What on earth has Reebok been doing in China? Making money
surely. But promoting human rights standards?
Some Indicators of How China
Responds To Human Rights Guidelines
China has the largest concentration of Reebok-supplying factories --
167 out of
throughout the 76-page report are signs of China's slow response to
Reebok's human rights interventions:
In a fascinating first-person report, Sherry Yuan, a Reebok human
rights manager responsible for 40 factories in five Chinese provinces,
provides a snapshot of reactions to her monitoring work. "I love
my job," she writes, "but
it can be very frustrating, especially when there is nothing I can do.
For example, even
when I have helped reduce [compulsory] working hours in factory once,
occurs again because of the pressure of the industry....I hope other
brands will come on board so that I am not always seen as the bad guy
with factory management."
- In late 2004, Reebok recognized it had a "countrywide
compliance" problem in China, including inaccurate records on working
hours and compensation. So it initiated a special "compliance
performance resolution" procedure for all 167 factories in China, plus
44 others in
Guatemala, Spain, and Portugal. Results:
"some success and some frustration."
- "Of the 233 factories added to our supply base in China in 2004
and 2005, 42% are no longer no longer active for Reebok
production." This high "churn" (turnover) rate among suppliers is
"an indicator of the work that needs to be done," both on human rights
and production problems.
- In applying the freedom of association standard in China,
Reebok takes what it calls a "flexible approach" -- encouraging
to organize under the mantle of the official All-China Federation of
Trade Unions, and even "facilitating" open election of workplace
representatives in three apparel and four footwear factories.
Result: "We have
not yet proved that democratic elections improve workplace conditions."
Will the merger with adidas help her out?
Former Neo-Conservative at the Crossroads
In his new book, "America at the Crossroads," Francis Fukuyama,
professor of international political economy at John Hopkins
says that the world today lacks
international institutions to grapple with its serious global political
In a chapter on "Rethinking Institutions for World Order,"
"As a result of more than 200 years of political evolution we have a
relatively good understanding of how to create
institutions that are rulebound, accountable, and reasonably effective
in the vertical silos
we call states. What we do not have are adequate mechanisms of horizontal accountability among
states." (The italics are mine.) In another section of the
book, he explains:
not now have an adequate set of horizontal mechanisms of accountability
between the vertical stovepipes we label states -- adequate, that is,
to match the intense economic and social interpenetration that we
characterize today as globalization."
Fukuyama, a disillusioned neo-conservative, has founded a magazine, the
American Interest, and a Website
with the same name, as forums for developing ideas for what he
calls "realistic Wilsonianism," which he describes as a worldvision
differs from neo-conservatism by taking international institutions
Aiming To Fill a Gap in Thinking
about Foreign Policy
The state, he agrees, remains the only source of power that can
enforce a rule of law. "But," he adds, "for that power to be
effective, it must be seen as legitimate; and durable legitimacy
requires a much higher degree of institutionalization across nations than exists
currently....None of the existing schools of foreign policy provides
adequate guidance to get us there."
Fukuyama's new foreign policy think tank is an initiative intended to
help us get there. In that journey, Fukuyama and his
colleagues would be wise to look into a debate that has been raging for
several years in the UN Commission on Human Rights and will continue in
the new Human Rights Council. That debate centers on what human
rights norms, if any, should be applied to the global conduct of
The beauty of this debate is that it has produced many arguments, pro
and con, and in between, on issues at the heart of trying
put globalization under some sort of rule of law, and that much of that
argumentation is available on-line.
The debate got started nearly three years ago after a subsidiary body
of experts of the Human Rights Commission approved a document called
on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other
Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights." After a
two-year campaign of opposition from the U.S. government and business
organizations, the Commission voted overwhelming last year to continue
working toward a global set of standards, and asked UN Secretary
General Kofi Annan to appoint a special representative
to study conflicting views and to come up with his
recommendations by spring 2007. (See "'Special'
Treatment for UN Global Norms.")
Critique of Global Norms as
Exaggerating Their Binding Force
professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government, whom Annan appointed as his special representative seven
months ago, submitted an interim
report in February. It disappointed some human rights advocates
strongly committed to the Global Norms document..
Ruggie's 22-page report pummels the Norms as flawed
with "exaggerated legal aims and conceptual ambiguities." His
major criticism is that they take "existing State-based human
rights instruments and simply assert that many of their provisions now
are binding on corporations as well" -- an assertion with "little
authoritative basis in international law, hard, soft, or otherwise."
He states that his approach to his mandate is "principled
pragmatism." By that he means "an unflinching commitment to the
of strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights as it
relates to business, coupled with a pragmatic attachment to what
works best in creating change where it matters most -- in the daily
lives of people." Under that approach, for example, he has
enlisted the help of the International
Organization of Employers to
compile effective ways of dealing with dilemmas encountered in "weak
governance zones" -- countries with governments unwilling or unable to
compliance with the countries' own legal standards.
Identifying the Forces Driving
Increased Focus on Transnational Corporations
"At least three distinct drivers," Ruggie writes, "are behind the
attention on transnational corporations" -- and by
implication behind his own mandate. "The first is simply the
latest expression of one of the oldest axioms of political life: the
successful accumulation of power by one type of social actor will
efforts by others with different interests and aims to organize
countervailing power." The other two driving forces:
Ruggie also has this warning: "The widening gap between global markets
and the capacity of societies to manage their consequences may pressure
political leaders to turn inward yet again [as they did in the
aftermath after World War I], pulled by economically disadvantaged but
politically empowered segments of their publics, as a result of which
assertive nationalism or intolerant fundamentalism may emerge as the
promised means for providing social protection. Embedding global
markets in shared values and institutional practices is a far better
- "Some companies have made themselves and even their entire
industries targets by committing serious harm to human rights, labor
standards, environmental protection, and other social concerns."
- "The sheer fact is that [the transnational corporate sector] has global reach and capacity and
that it is capable of acting at a pace and scale that neither
Governments nor international agencies can match." Statistics
cited by Ruggie for this reach: "70,000 transnational firms, together
with roughly 700,000 subsidiaries and millions of suppliers spanning
every corner of the globe." Intra-firm trade -- trade between
affiliates of the same corporate entity -- amounts to some 40% of U.S.
Contributing to that outcome, he adds, is the "broadest macro
objective" of his work in the remaining year of his mandate.
5 Points on the Sorry State of Globalization
After 10 years of monitoring international labor
developments as editor of Human Rights for Workers, plus many more
prior years of doing the same at the AFL-CIO Asian Institute and in
the U.S. Foreign Service, I've been reflecting on how to formulate my
of globalization today. I have boiled my views down to these five
Email: ILO Standards and Trade Sanctions
- Under the expanding international governance by the rules and
institutions of free trade and investment, international business has
acquired a wide array of global rights and privileges that are balanced
by no -- or at most very minor -- matching responsibilities and
accountability. That is an empirical statement, based on the
policies and practices of the World Trade Organization and of other
parts of the global economic infrastructure, particularly the large and
growing network of bilateral and regional trade and investment
- The resulting disconnect between global rights and global
responsibilities has created an imbalance of power that protects and
advances the interests of business and allied elites, to the
disadvantage of other "stakeholders," particularly the many
millions of vulnerable working men, women, and children and poor
unable to protect their interests. That too is an empirical
statement, based on an accumulation of convincing evidence from
reliable academic, media, NGO, and other sources.
- The disconnect between global rights and global
the resulting imbalance of power, is wrong, grievously so.. That is
a moral judgment, based on basic principles of fairness and common
decency. But moral principles are not self-executing.
- Although some business and opinion leaders, conscious of the
are embracing the need for reforms, reform initiatives are still
experimental and fragmentary. That is an empirical statement,
based on the lack of significant progress -- and the many obstacles
faced -- by pioneering initiatives during the past 50 years.
- Thanks to improved global communications, the sharp contrast
between human values and the realities of globalization, including the
rising inequality between the poor and the fabulously rich, is
becoming more visible and more objectionable, with
explosive consequences likely if gross human exploitation continues.
That is a social/political assessment, based on
present trends, including the abysmal failure of global policymakers to
take the lead in
promoting change for the common good. To put it in Fukuyama's
terms, their task is to help develop "adequate mechanisms of horizontal
accountability" across national borders "to match the intense economic
and social interpenetration that we characterize today as
In last month's HRFW article, "Google
Lesson: Rights, No Responsibilities," I wrote that the UN
International Labor Organization (ILO) has been deliberately kept
"frozen in its 1918 mode, radically unfit to cope with the global
economy." Here is a comment emailed by Kimberly Elliott,
co-author with Richard Freeman of the book "Can
Labor Standards Improve
you are right that more needs to be done to make the ILO more
effective, but I would reiterate the skepticism expressed in my book
with Richard Freeman about using trade sanctions as a broad tool to
enforce labor standards. I am not ideologically opposed to the idea of
using trade sanctions to enforce ILO standards; indeed, we recommend a
limited role for sanctions against trade-related and egregious
violations of core labor standards.
But I don't think that broader uses of sanctions to generally
enforce labor standards would work. The example that I point to is
intellectual property, where my interpretation is that US trade threats
have had some "success" in getting countries to pass stronger IP
protection laws but little if any success in getting countries to
effectively enforce those laws -- look at U.S. relations with China! It
takes political capital as well as real, scarce, resources to enforce
laws, and countries will strongly resist doing that until they view it
as in their interest.
Moreover, external pressures are often ineffective because it is too
hard to identify clear, tangible violations and therefore difficult to
make sanctions threats clear and credible. So the parties end up in
endless negotiations over the meaning of compliance. I think a similar
dynamic would occur with labor standards. The bigger problem with the
ILO right now is that both the pressure on it to do more and the
resources that might help it do that have been largely withdrawn since
George Bush succeeded Bill Clinton in the White House.
In their book, published by the IIE three years ago, Elliott and
Freeman urged that Export Processing
Zones (EPZs) be transformed into models of "globalization at its
their recommendations: "EPZs or firms within them that egregiously
violate core [labor] standards should face the threat of trade
restrictions." See "The
Export Processing Zones today remain models of globalized exploitation,
especially of young women. Meanwhile, U.S. trade negotiators are using
bilateral and regional trade agreements to extend and
expand the WTO's agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property
Rights (TRIPS). These protectionist rules, though often not
enforced, are sufficiently observed to help reap fabulous rewards for
the property owners,
pharmaceutical industry. Actually, there are sound policy and practical
reasons why countries
resist complying with the regulation-heavy TRIPS and its even more
protectionist replicas. See "U.S.
to the Aid of Rich Drug Firms."
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No.
XI-4 April 3, 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
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