Vol. IV, Bulletin No.18. October 5, 1999
An Evening with the Georgetown Solidarity Committee
Why Students Demand 'Sunshine' on Sweatshops
"It's the strongest human rights and worker rights movement in the United States." That's what Charles Kernaghan, a veteran campaigner for worker rights, calls the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which now has affiliates in about 150 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.
The student movement's anti-sweatshop campaign has a huge advantage over the labor movement's, Kernaghan says, because a common reaction to similar activities by unions is: Oh, that's just the unions--they're paid for doing that. It's a brush-off that doesn't work for the students; hence they have created a new dynamic in the struggle against sweatshops.
Kernaghan made that point one evening last month to about 60 students attending a meeting of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee. He is right. Students are indeed a dynamic new force in the crusade against sweatshops, a crucial one--but not the only ones. Two other important factors were evident that night in a crowded classroom at Georgetown University:
Meet Eric Brakken, USAS' New Organizer
- Kernaghan himself, longtime head of the New York-based National Labor Committee. He is not the smoothest of speakers, but he displays the same style that is so persuasive in the talks that he gives on 40 to 50 college campuses each year. Holding up a pair of Kathie Lee pants with a $16.95 price tag, he says that the assembly-line labor cost of making it in El Salvador is 15 cents. He describes in detail how long and hard women in Central America work for American consumers, and shows samples of his collection of products made under pitiful conditions for pitiful wages.
- Sweatshop victims from Central America, in this case two women and one male organizer from El Salvador. At they did earlier that day, September 22, at a Capitol Hill press conference, they provide dramatic testimony about the plight of 70,000 workers, mostly young women, who sew over 500 million garments a year for export from 225 El Salvador factories to the United States. The two women, experienced garment workers, were fired for union activities. The male organizer has had his life threatened. Result: an atmosphere of fear and not a single union contract in the whole industry.
The newly appointed organizer of the United Students Against Sweatshops, Eric Brakken, also speaks. A '99 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Brakken, 22, draws the connection between college students and sweatshop workers. "They make the clothes we wear," he says. The two unemployed El Salvadoran women, he says, "worked harder than any of us, and yet got fired" and also blacklisted to keep them from getting any other jobs.
Brakken describes the need for "sunshine" in the sweatshop system. Its workers are closed off in factories "behind concrete walls, barbed wire fences, and armed guards." Like Kernaghan, he criticizes an anti-sweatshop initiative called the Fair Labor Association, which is supported by the White House, some businesses (including Nike), and others (including Kathie Lee Gifford). Two of the FLA's weaknesses, he says, are its failures to provide either public disclosure of factory sites or an independent monitoring system for verifying compliance with the FLA code.
Still, as Brakken tells me later, the administrations of some 122 colleges and universities have signed on with the FLA, some, like the Georgetown, with the intention of making the FLA more effective. Brakken and a USAS committee are working on an alternative to the FLA, a structure they tentatively call the Worker Empowerment Consortium. It will be unveiled in time for "a national day of action" USAS is planning for October 20th.
USAS' office, staffed by Brakken and three interns, is at 1413 K St. N.W., 9th floor, Washington, D.C., telephone 202-667-9328 (202-NOSWEAT). Brakken's email address: email@example.com.
(For background, see a March bulletin, "The Struggle Against Sweatshops Is Heating Up.")
This Monitoring System Gets a Failing Grade
Monitoring the labor practices of multinational corporations in the developing world seems well on its way to becoming a growth industry. But who--what kind of organizations and what kind of people--should do the monitoring? That's a hotly debated issue.
A Hong Kong coalition called Labor Rights in China has leaped into that fray with a report attacking the initiatives of a leader in the monitoring field, the New York-based Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency, which administers an operation called Social Accountability 8000, or SA8000 for short. The report acknowledges that:
But the Coalition report charges that because (among other weaknesses) the Agency's advisory board is heavy with business representatives and allies, the whole SA8000 mechanism "serves just as another public relations tool" by which companies can deflect responsibility for worker rights violations. An example cited in the report: In August 1998 five workers were killed, and 27 were injured, when a Chinese toy factory collapsed due to shoddy construction. In response to criticism, the owners, Bingo Corporation Ltd., told the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (HKCIC) "not to worry, because labor conditions were up to [SA8000] standards in their factory."
- "SA8000 is on paper an advance from most [corporate] codes because it promises workers the right to a living wage (as opposed to a minimum legal wage), collective bargaining, and freedom of association, whereas these are usually absent in other codes."
- Because of confusion caused by the multiplication of different codes of conduct, many companies welcome a universal code, with performance verified and certified by auditing firms approved, and auditors trained, under SA8000.
These Training Workshops Deemed a 'Farce'
Researchers from two Coalition members--the HKCIC and the Asian Monitor Resource Center--participated in two SA8000 training workshops, one in Shenzhen in July 1998 and the other in Hong Kong in March 1999, both lasting three days. The Coalition report calls that training a "farce" because, among other reasons:
For the context of the above highlights, check the full text of "No Illusions: Against the Global Cosmetics SA8000" on the Website of the China Labor Bulletin. A response can be found on the Website of the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEEPA).
- The instructor in both workshops was an AT&T management retiree who had never before set foot in Asia and had no background in developing world labor issues. "He repeated time and again that no companies would violate labor rights deliberately."
- Most of the 71 trainees in the two workshops were already auditing professionals, with degrees in engineering, chemistry, and accounting, and had very little knowledge of labor or human rights. Many displayed a strong pro-management bias.
How Can a System Rife with Evils Be Civilized?
My comments: This controversy, like the one involving the Fair Labor Association, grows naturally from efforts to cure the evils of a globe-girdling system in which some corporations rely on, and profit from, huge networks of contractors and subcontractors. Take an example often cited by Neil Kearney, head of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers' Federation, and a member of the CEEPA advisory council: one retailer, Nordstrom, "sources from 13,000 different suppliers, each with an average of five subcontractors, a total of 78,000 production points."
Even if it sincerely wants to, can a company with such a vast supplier network ever make all its contractors and subcontractors comply with its code of conduct? I wonder. I suspect that achieving such a Herculean task is possible only with a countervailing institutional network that includes much more than good codes of conduct and good independent monitoring systems.
Guilt, Shame, and Paper Tigers: an IMF Dialogue
Those were among the assertions made last month by Jagdish Bhagwati, economics professor at Columbia, at an International Monetary Fund seminar held during the annual IMF-World Bank annual meetings in Washington. The title of the seminar was "A Role for Labor Standards in the New International Economy?"
- He calls himself an optimist, so much of one that he believes sweatshops will disappear because of growing feelings of "guilt and shame" among people responsible for them. To end labor abuses in the global economy, he counts on voluntary approaches, such as that of the Council on Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEEPA). He sits on its advisory board.
- He supports the right to organize, especially for workers in poor countries, but too often "unions are paper tigers." He applies that characterization even to the AFL-CIO for its being unable to wipe out labor abuses in the United States, all the while fighting sweatshops abroad.
David Smith, director of the AFL-CIO department of public policy, said it was "inconceivable" as late as two years ago that an IMF seminar on labor standards could take place. After outlining how "broadly shared economic development in the United States was enhanced by core labor standards," he said that the current question is how to apply the lessons of the American experience to the global economy. Unlike Bhagwati (whose talk followed his) and three other speakers, Smith made a case for a trade/labor standards linkage.
The Limits of 'Shame and Guilt' for Stimulating Reforms
In a brief panel discussion, for which Bhagwati was not present, Smith restated the need for a trade/labor linkage, and emphasized that core labor standards are not quantitative but qualitative. He said that he has less faith in the power of guilt and shame than Professor Bhagwati has. He also acknowledged the existence of labor problems in the United States and said he would not be averse to international help to solve them.
(At the close of the seminar I wondered whether the electronic recording made of the whole event would be transcribed. The chairman, the IMF's Stanley Fischer, told me that the transcription was already in process, and that the transcript would be posted on the IMF's Website the next day, September 30. But it did not appear, not that day nor several days thereafter. Doublecheck recent transcripts at http://www.imf.org/cgi-shl/create_x.pl?tr+1999.)
Diary: Blocked at Kirkland Memorial
I wish I could have heard the eulogies of former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland at the memorial in his honor held last month at Georgetown University. Later I read about the tributes paid him by President Clinton, Lech Walesa, John Sweeney, and others.
Of the 13 eulogies, one of the most moving was given by his daughter, Lucy Kirkland Shoenfeld, and hers was not completely somber. Closing the service, she repeated her father's pointed advice: "to never kiss ass and to never cross a picket line." I read that in a story by Sylvia Moreno in the Washington Post the next day. In an unsigned obituary, the New York Times also quoted Mrs. Shoenfeld's exact words about the picket line but put its own prudish spin on the rest of Kirkland's advice. "He encouraged her to remain always irreverent," the Times reported, misleadingly.
I almost made it to the memorial. My invitation did me no good when I drove up to the Georgetown parking lot at 11:30, a half hour before the service was to begin. There the entrance was blocked "until the President arrives." I waited and waited, and then, like others in line, I made a U-turn and left. I was angry at the Secret Service and at the President, but should have been angry with myself for not arriving much earlier.
(See the AFL-CIO Website, http://www.aflcio.org/about/kirkland_memserv.htm, for a report on the event. Also you can find Clinton's speech on the White House Website.)
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-18, October 5, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
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