Vol. IV, Bulletin No. 23. December 20, 1999
Better Pay Attention to the Fate of Globalized Women Workers
A Lesson from the WTO Flop at Seattle
In the wake of the disastrous summit meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle early this month, the world's policy-makers--its movers and shakers--ought to investigate this question: what impact has globalization had on women workers, especially in developing countries?
Ten years ago ten social scientists addressed that question, and concluded from their research that the impact was "contradictory": their new job opportunities liberated women to some extent, but also reinforced gender exploitation on a large scale. A book containing their findings described two dimensions of these mixed results:
The title of the book with those findings is "Women Workers and Global Restructuring," edited by Kathryn Ward and published by Cornell University. The two points above are drawn from a review of mine published in the January 1990 Monthly Labor Review of the U.S. Department of Labor.
- Subjugation by men. One important plus of paid labor for women in traditional societies is that it usually loosens the patriarchal controls of the family, but the minus is that women "move from the control of their fathers and families to industrial plants that have male managers" who perpetuate traditional male domination in new modes of exploitation.
- Economic dependence. Earning money on their own often enables Third World women to achieve a measure of economic independence, but not much, since their wages are generally very low--"barely at the subsistence level even by their own country's standards." Moreover, when women try to protect their interests through unionization, they almost always meet strong opposition from employers as well as governments.
The More Things Change, the More the Lot of Some Remains Unchanged
Has the lot of women workers in developing countries improved in the past decade? Again, it is best to listen to the women themselves. Listen, for example, to the women given voice by the Committee for Asian Women, headquartered in Bangkok. In the latest issue of its quarterly publication, Asian Women Workers Newsletter, a report from India written by Ms. A. R. Sindhu says that "women are the hardest hit by these [globalization] policies in terms of employment, wages, working conditions, and in the social sphere." She explains, for example:"To provide a 'flexible labor market' for the employers there is a widespread attack on women's rights and moves to change/dismantle the existing labor legislation which was achieved through years of struggle."We have no other alternative but to fight tooth and nail these policies imposed on the developing countries, because our experience has proved that without a conscious, organized struggle against these policies and the forces promoting them, it is not possible to counter their negative impact on the working people."(The Committee's Website is at http://www.cawhk.web-page.net/. As of this writing, the latest Newsletters are not yet posted, probably because of a recent move from Hong Kong to Bangkok.)
Free Advice to Trade Ministers and Other Leaders
Those words contain some not-so-subtle advice for world leaders ignoring the downside of globalization: take heed, take heed--or else your post-Seattle plans will come to naught. One influential economist, Gary Hufbauer of the Institute for International Economics, is already supporting some reforms: for example, a labeling system certifying that imported and domestic products are made in ways that meet core labor and environmental standards.
(An excellent source for information on the WTO and related developments is the Website of the New Economy Information Service at http://www.newecon.org.)
Sorting Out the Villainies on a Trade Issue
* * *
"Why India and Others See U.S. as Villain on Trade"-- headline in the December 17 New York Times. The article highlights objections to the U.S. government's failed proposal to get the WTO to look into the issue of labor standards. It quotes no Indian workers. Instead it relies heavily on an Indian government official, its minister of industry and commerce, seconded by a union official from a highly politicized Indian labor confederation.
Like many other media reports, this one is seriously misleading because:
Challenging the 'Divine Right of Capital'
- It fails to mention that the very modest U.S. proposal for a WTO study group on labor standards was supported by many other "villains," including unions from all over the developing world.
- It fails to mention that, in lobbying at Seattle and before, the U.S. proposal was vigorously opposed by business organizations.
- It fails to mention that the U.S. proposal is nothing new but has a 20-year history. Instead, the article repeats the speculation that the U.S. government was motivated by pre-2000 election politics.
- It fails to mention that the opposition from developing "countries" at the WTO sessions came from the governments of developing countries. There is a difference between the two, recognized and safeguarded by the Times at home, but often ignored in its foreign reporting.
"Is Maximizing Returns to Shareholders a Legitimate Mandate?" is the title of a new booklet by Marjorie Kelly, editor of Business Ethics. Her answer: absolutely not. That mandate is a relic of the aristocratic past, she argues.
Her argument is based mostly on these facts:
"Stockholders claim wealth they do little to create, much as nobles claimed privilege they did not earn," Kelly writes. Since only those who own stock can vote for a corporation's board of directors, employees without stock "are disenfranchised"--a situation she compares to the limitations of American democracy "until the mid-1800s, when only those who owned land could vote."
- Stockholders contribute very little to publicly owned corporations--only about 5% of the companies' capital. Corporations get most of the capital they need from their own revenue.
- Most shareholders in major corporations have no management role or any other function except one: collecting wealth.
- Meanwhile, employee productivity over the last decade has been three times the rise in employee compensation, according to a Morgan Stanley & Co. chief economist.
Free-Market Capitalism, Yes; Stockholder Preeminence, No
She insists that hers is not an attack on capitalism. To the contrary, she calls free-market capitalism "the most fruitful economic system the world has yet conceived," one with many "sturdy and healthy" elements, such as private property, competition, profit, supply and demand, voluntary self-regulation, and so forth.
But she finds one inconsistent element: maximizing returns to stockholders. "It is an aristocratic edict," she writes, because "it decrees that the interests of one group will be systematically favored over others." Moreover, "shareholder maximization is a form of entitlement, [which] has no place in a free market."
This entitlement, Kelly writes, has roots in legal traditions biased toward propertied classes, like laws that "once held biases favoring men over women, or whites over blacks." For its legitimacy, "the core myth--that shareholder returns must be maximized--is thus considered unchallengeable."
Looking Beyond the Bottom Line
But challenge it Kelly does, vigorously, and will continue to do so in further booklets, which are to be compiled in a book titled "The Divine Right of Capital." She explains:"I co-founded the publication Business Ethics in 1987, in the belief that individual companies, becoming socially responsible, would transform capitalism. I no longer believe this. I have watched as ethics, employee ownership, family-friendly policies, and other progressive notions have put down only shallow roots--to be torn out and discarded when they conflict with the mandate to maximize returns to shareholders."Kelly's booklets are part of a new series, "Beyond the Bottom Line," published bimonthly by Berrett-Koehler Communications (http://www.bkconnection.com).
Hunting for Corporate Social Responsibility
Conferences are often boring, but serendipity can come to the rescue. In a paper distributed at a recent economic conference, I read a reference to a textbook with an article by Milton Friedman titled "The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits." Intrigued, even fascinated, I decided to find Friedman's exact quote.
The Fairfax Country Public Library system carries few textbooks but found me this one, "Business Ethics, Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality," from outside the county, on loan from Longwood College, in Farmville, Va. It indeed contains Friedman's article, a reprint from the New York Times Magazine of September 13, 1970.
How does Friedman's text justifies the article's title? The very last sentence of the article reads as follows: "...there is one and only one social responsibility of business--to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it says within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud."
I was not quite satisfied, however, because Friedman cites those words as taken from his book, "Capital and Freedom," originally published in 1962. It wasn't on the shelves of the public library. So I bought the paperback edition, which is still in print (over a half million copies sold in the English language edition alone, says the publisher, the University of Chicago Press). On page 133, I found not only the words quoted in the Times Magazine but also this sentence:"Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.""Capitalism and Freedom," says the paperback's cover, is "the classic statement of Milton Friedman's economic philosophy." And not just that of Friedman, who even in his 1982 preface marveled at how popular his philosophy had become. Today that philosophy has become the de facto rule of the stock market.
Mailbox: 'Your Credentials, Please'
Dear Editor: Hello. I am taking an Interdisciplinary Course as a sophomore at a two-year campus. In this course we have group discussions and our next discussion is [on child labor]. I have been reading the Human Rights for Workers Bulletins that are especially focused on sweatshops and child labor laws. I would like to ask you if you have more credentials besides being the editor.
I am wondering if you have any personal or professional experience with labor laws, WTO, and/or sweatshops that would make you a better authoritative figure. I hope I haven't insulted you in any way, I certainly don't mean to do so. -- Kristen
Dear Kristen: Thank you for your inquiry about my background. I suggest you check the "Frequently Asked Questions" section at faq.htm. That's rather short. Let me add a couple of points covering your interests. Years ago I visited four or five sweatshops in Bangladesh and talked at length with Bangladeshi people active in campaigning against child labor, as well as with employers in the garment industry. As member of the Child Labor Coalition of the National Consumers League here in Washington, D.C. for more than 10 years, I've been involved in both U.S. and international child labor activities.
Do I qualify as an "authority"? I hope that people would give my writings careful consideration on the basis of whether what I write is factual, based on reliable research (by myself and others), and whether my ideas for change make sense, not on whether I may be an authority of some sort. -- Bob Senser
Diary: My Resolutions for 2000
I sometimes feel frustrated. Even overwhelmed. There's so much happening on so many fronts in the struggle for worker rights in the United States and across the globe. . How can Human Rights for Workers possibly keep up with all these developments?
The hard truth: it can't. And I know of no single source, either in print or electric format, that does. Fortunately, there are many individual sources that, singly or in combination, throw light on specific subjects. (See a partial listing at links.htm.)
So I'd better just accept--and admit to--the limitations inherent in my endeavors. I can't possibly cover the whole story of complex, fast-changing developments, but:
That said, I feel better already. Have a happy Christmas and a happy New Year, New Century, and New Millennium!
- I can focus on some noteworthy aspects, and provide links to Websites that provide fuller information. Example: the continuing controversy centering on the World Trade Organization.
- I can also highlight some issues whose significance is widely overlooked. Example: Marjorie Kelly's forthright challenge to the primacy of shareholders in corporate society (above).
- I can do more to highlight certain worker rights abuses in the United States.
Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. IV-23, December 20, 1999
Robert A. Senser, editor
email@example.com. (Send e-mail)
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