XI, Bulletin No. 6
June 23, 2006
PRESSURING BUSH ON CHINA
AFL-CIO Demands Action To Protect Rights
Of Chinese Workers, and
Those of Americans Too
"Global corporations from Wal-Mart to Proctor & Gamble to Delphi to
Dell relentlessly squeeze labor costs in their Chinese affiliates and
suppliers and use the threat of low-wage competition to roll back
decades of hard-won gains in wages, benefits, and dignified treatment
for workers in the United States. The severe exploitation of
China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle
class are two sides of a coin."
Thus does the AFL-CIO open a 179-page petition
demanding that the Bush
Administration take action against the government of China for
exploiting Chinese workers to
the point of also causing severe harm to American workers and American
communities. A similar AFL-CIO petition two years ago met
rejection because, instead of litigating, "our Administration is
producing real results," as then U.S. Trade Representative Robert
put it (see "Reaching
Out to China's Workers and Ours" and "Bloodletting
as Trade Policy").
Two Members of Congress, a
Republican and a Democrat, Are Co-Petitioners
On June 8 the AFL-CIO returned to the President's Office of the U.S.
Trade Representative with its new petition, this one challenging the
administration to reopen the case because in the past two years
Joined by two petitioners from Congress -- Christopher H. Smith, U.S.
Representative (Republican) from New Jersey, and Benjamin L. Cardin,
U.S. Representative (Democrat) from Maryland -- the AFL-CIO is seeking
remedies under section 301 of the Trade Act That section
empowers the President to impose trade sanctions against "unreasonable
trade practices," including violations of internationally recognized
worker rights. The AFL-CIO petitions of 2004 and this year are the
first to employ that provision to prod action against worker rights
- the administration's efforts have produced no results in China,
- instead, China's systemic violation of internationally
recognized worker rights "has persisted and in many respects has
Despite its post-Mao economic reforms, China still has "nothing
resembling a free labor market in the manufacturing sector," the
AFL-CIO petition emphasizes. "Through extraordinary exertions of state
the Chinese government, with the complicity of corporate managers,
created and perpetuates an enormous subclass of factory
workers....80,000,000 to 100,000,000 manufacturing workers, constituting as much as half of all
manufacturing workers in the world economy" [italics in the
Government and Corporations in China
Must End Regimentation
With this extraordinarily large, low-paid, and regimented work
force, the petition
continues, "China will continue to serve as the World's Sweatshop,
producing low-technology goods alongside high-technology goods for
decades to come -- unless the multinational and domestic corporations
operating in China and the Chinese government radically reverse course
and dismantle their regimentation of factory workers."
To help promote such a reversal, the AFL-CIO petition calls upon the
President to have corporations let some sunshine into their China
operations, which are now very secretive. They would be required
to disclose comprehensive data on wages, hours, and other
working conditions for both their affiliates and contractors.
Cited in the petitions are commitments on international worker rights
made by the People's Republic of China in a series of agreements: the
International Labor Organization's 1998 Declaration of the Fundamental
Principles and Rights at Work, the International Covenant on
and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998, and the International
Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which China ratified
* * *
Initiative a Direct Challenge to Privileged
In the present environment, the AFL-CIO petition on China will not be
quickly embraced. At root, it is a direct challenge to the
unbalanced way that the global economy has developed. Read the
document's final paragraphs for an idea of the broader
issue at stake:
"All countries, including China and the United States, face strong
incentives to compete for mobile capital and jobs by cheapening the
labor and debasing the lives of their working citizens. These
incentives are created by global rules that protect rights of property
and contract but not rights of personhood and labor....
"Nearly a century ago, Congress declared that 'the labor of a human
being is not a commodity or article of commerce.' It is time that
the United States used its extraordinary bargaining power to ensure
that internationally recognized workers' rights are given the same
protection that is now given to rights of commerce."
In other words: Today's global rules favor commerce with rights
and privileges awesome in their generosity, and without any
corresponding responsibility or accountability. How many people
and institutions in this richly advantaged position would lose it
without a vigorous fight?
'Wall-Street Complex' Is Alive and Well
"Wall Street has exceptional clout with Washington," Jagdish Bhagwati,
world-renowned economist, wrote in a 1998 Foreign
Affairs article. What is the reason for that exceptional
influence? "There is, in the sense of a power elite a la C.
Wright Mills, a definite networking of like-minded luminaries among the
powerful institutions -- Wall Street, the Treasury Department, the
State Department, the IMF, and the World Bank most prominent among
them," Bhagwati explained, and continued: .
"This powerful network, which may aptly, if loosely be called the Wall
Street-Treasury complex, is unable to look much beyond the interest of
Wall Street, which it equates with the good of the world."
Bhagwati identified six of the prominent members of this network as
examples of those involved in what I would call the VIP executive
exchange program -- or the revolving door for the elite -- between Wall
Street and Washington. One man he cited was Robert Rubin, who
became Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury after serving on Wall Street.
Rubin of course has returned to Wall Street since then. But the
big news now is about the latest distribution of elite hats:
Will Paulson and Zoellick, in their new posts, look beyond the interest
of Wall Street and not equate it with the good
of the world? Naive question.
- At the end of May President Bush nominated Henry M.
Paulson, chairman of the Wall Street investment firm, Goldman Sachs, to
be his new Secretary of Treasury.
- Three weeks later, Robert B. Zoellick, the No. 2 at the State
Department for the past 16 months and previously the United States
Trade Representative for four years, announced he was resigning from
State to join Goldman Sachs as vice chairman for international affairs.
Garment Workers' Anger Jolts Bangladesh
Discontent has been building up in Bangladesh's export garment industry
for years, but especially so since early 2005 .Sixty-four workers
died and 70 were
seriously injured in the sudden collapse of a seven-storey garment
assembly plant near Dhaka on April 11 (see "Greed
Kills, and Greed
Pays") Then, in February and March of this year, 88
others lost their lives in four more tragedies in firetraps..
Worker groups held small protest demonstrations. The garment
owners association held meetings. Newspapers wrote critical
union federation in Holland sent a delegation. But little
happened to aid the victims and their families or to make unsafe
factories safer. Meantime, even as the cost of living rose, the
government kept the
wage at the 1994 level.
On the morning of May 22, the discontent boiled over into a riot.
it began at sweater factory after a dispute over low
piece work rates that often netted less than $10 for a month of 29 days
of labor. The protest spread to nearby garment factories, and before
long, tens of thousands of workers were rampaging through the
streets in and around Dhaka to vent their grievances. Some clashed not
only with police but also with employees
loyal to the factory owners. Angered by a report that police had shot a
demonstrator, some marchers set two factories ablaze and vandalized
dozens of others.
Before calm returned on May 23, two workers were dead,
at least one of them from gunshot wounds. Then, that afternoon,
leaders and members of the garment manufacturers, angry about business
losses and the breakdown of public order, took to the streets,
temporarily blocking a downtown traffic circle.
Like the aftershocks of an earthquake, conflicts continued to rumble
through sections of the country's five export processing zones (EPZs).
Some 70,000 workers remained locked out of work for days. Although some
individual factories gave wage increases, the business associations, in
meeting after meeting, stuck to a tough position. Most of them kept
telling themselves that worker grievances did not spark the
unprecedented riots and that no general improvement in
conditions, such as an increase in the minimum wage, which has
been frozen since 1994, was necessary without further study.
Without Unions, No Useful Channel
Although there are several unions in the garment industry, they are
weak, without standing under Bangladesh law and ignored by almost all
factory owners. Ought that change? Three answers:
On June 8, after hearing a report from Neil Kearney, just arrived in
Geneva from Dhaka, the UN International Labor Organization's Committee
on the Application of Standards adopted a report
knuckles and demanding that, among other things, the government
halt the suppression of union rights in the EPZs.
- "The pent-up disgruntlement of the workers might not have found
expression had the owners allowed trade unionism within the ambit of
labor laws. But it is evident that there is no mechanism to give
a hearing to and redress the genuine grievances of the workers." -- the
of Dhaka in a May 24 editorial titled "Threat to the Garment
- "In a labor-intensive industry like ready-made garments, a
leaderless, unorganized workforce is totally unpredictable, and can be
very disruptive, as was amply demonstrated in these past two
weeks. In reality, the absence of trade unions is very much more
dangerous than the presence of active unions." -- Neil Kearney,
general secretary of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather
Workers Federation, in a statement release June 7.
- "We have to look into a long-term solution to the problem. We
have to talk to the workers to find out whether it is an issue of
outburst of the workers' accumulated grievances." -- Arthur Rahman
Sinha, former president of the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters
Association, quoted at an emergency meeting by the May 24 Daily Star.
Singing Praises for Sweatshops, Again
"Let Them Sweat" was the title of a column published in the New York
Times in June four years ago (see Sweatshops
Praised by NY Times Columnist). In it, Nicholas D.
Kristof held up sweatshops as "the only hope for kids" in developing
countries like Pakistan, and charged that Western anti-sweatshop
campaigners are just promoting "feel-good measures for
Kristof returned to the same themes in a June 6 column titled "In
Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop." This time he prescribed
sweatshops for the poor countries of Africa, and urges American
students to start campaigning to bring them there.
The students deserve an apology from Kristof. In their unselfish and
persistent pioneering, they have shown many of their elders how it is
possible to end both injustice and poverty among the millions of
workers who make the garments we wear.
Mark Barenberg, a
professor of international labor law at Columbia and a
director of the Worker Rights Consortium, put the matter bluntly in a
letter published in the June 8 Times by asking: "Doesn't it
to campaign for both more jobs and better wages for the poorest
workers? In fact, this is what students are seeking."
Sweatshops create wealth for the elite. They guarantee
that poor people remain poor and that the countries depending on
sweatshops remain ensnared in poverty.
Take Bangladesh. For more than two decades that country has
relied on the
sweatshops and near-sweatshops of its large garment export industry to
its people out of poverty. Instead, Bangladesh has stayed on a
underdevelopment. In 1990 the United
Nations Development Program, in its first human development index,
ranked Bangladesh down at 136 on a list of 160 countries. In the UNDP's
latest human development ranking, Bangladesh is 139 of 177 countries.
Kristof does not quite understand what a
sweatshop is. Here are some of the ways that, according to the
AFL-CIO's petition on China, sweatshops in China cheat workers of their
And that's just a very partial definition of a sweatshop, limited only
to variations on stealing wages.
- Employers simply pay wages set below the legal minimum set for
the province or locality.
- Employers require workers to work overtime hours far in excess
of legal standards, at hourly wage rates far below standards for
overtime pay, or with no extra pay at all, on the ground that
production quotas have not been met, or some other pretext.
- Employers take the liberty to make deductions from the basic
wage, for example by withholding the wages for a woman's first two or
three months on a
job as a "deposit"; by retaining that deposit when she quits or is
charging fees for local permits that the worker never receives; by
fines for missing production quotas, for talking or laughing during
work hours or during noon break, for not marching in unison to and from
work stations, for not staying in bed when dormitory lights are out,
and for other infractions of discipline.
- Employers require workers to arrive at work stations one hour
early for "preparation" and to stay late for "cleanup" with no pay for
the extra time.
- Employers just neglect to pay the wages at all, ostensibly
because the factory is financially strapped or whatever, leaving
workers without the knowledge of what they are owed and without the
records, bargaining power, or legal recourse to challenge the
Tracing The Shrinking Reward for Work
Whatever its title may suggest, "The Moral Consequences of Economic
Growth," a new book by economist Benjamin M. Friedman of Harvard, is
a call for a simple increase in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.
Rather, in it Friedman develops the case for a broad-based increase in the GDP,
one that reflects economic gains for a clear majority of Americans.
Friedman is worried because the U.S. economy has fallen short
of that kind of progress. "Except for a brief period in the late
1990s," he writes, "most of the fruits of the last three decades of
economic growth in the United States have accrued to only a small slice
of the American population." He continues:
"After allowing for higher prices,
the average worker in American
business in 2004 made 16% less
each week than 30-plus years earlier. For most Americans, the
reward for work today is well below what it used to be."
Friedman devotes most of his book to tracing the historical link
between economic growth and social, political, and moral progress. He
finds that, by and large, the trends -- up or down -- parallel each
other, not only in the United States but in countries throughout the
world. But he acknowledges important exceptions. In China
and Saudi Arabia, for example, economic growth has not meant advances
in freedom and democracy.
Also, Friedman describes the U.S. Great Depression of the 1930s as an
exception to the rule that economic stagnation generally leads to a
country's moral decline. In this case, the economic disaster did not
erode public and private cooperation but fostered it instead. For
Friedman gives much credit to the moral leadership of President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In fact, the chapter on "Great
Depression, Great Exception" can provide today's leaders food for
reflection and action not only on the moral consequences of economic
growth but on the economic consequences of moral growth.
Colombia Leads in Killing Union Members
More trade unionists are killed each year in Colombia than in the rest
of the world combined. "The
Struggle for Human Rights in Colombia," a new publication of the
AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, makes that point in the course of describing
the South American country's horrendous human rights record.
According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions,
Colombia is, year after year, the world's deadliest country
for trade unionists.
This record of unfreedom has not prevented the U.S. Trade
completing a "free trade" agreement with Colombia. It still faces
ratification by Congress.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No.
XI-6 June 23, 2006
Robert A. Senser, editor
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