Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 1: January 18, 1997 

New Consciousness About Abuses, But--

"It's unbelievable--the progress we've made in the past year," a trade union leader, Ann Hoffman, said at a recent meeting of the Child Labor Coalition in Washington, D.C. In the same vein, a longtime worker rights activist, Jeffrey Ballinger, recently told a magazine reporter: "I think we've turned the corner." Both Hoffman and Ballinger were referring to the unprecedented high level of public concern about the exploitation of vulnerable workers, especially women and children, in foreign and domestic sweatshops.

 The signs of that concern are many. Here's a small sample:

These and other such developments are creating an unprecedented public awareness. More and more shoppers are following the No. 1 recommendation on the list of U.S. News and World Report: "Look to see where things are made....Ask store managers what they know about a product's origins."

But what difference does this heightened public awareness make out there in Asia among the workers whose plight now arouses such concern? So far, unfortunately, the impact has been minimal. The few breakthroughs (for example, fewer child garment workers in Bangladesh) have been outweighed by negative reactions of factory owners (for example, firing the abused Vietnamese women workers who voiced their complaints on American television).

The True Test: What Happens to People

Still more time is necessary for an impact to be felt where it counts: in the lives of the working men, women, and children now being exploited. Even while celebrating the progress in raising public consciousness, however, it is essential to recognize the obstacles to progress in the far-off factories producing for us. The obstacles to reform are enormous.

Think about that recommendation to consumers to examine labels and to question store managers. Good advice, but have you tried to follow it? I tried and quickly learned its limitations: there are just too many products made in countries whose labor practices are abominable. There is just no way of knowing whether, for example, parts for my computer or the new antenna for my TV were made by political prisoners in China. The "made in China" label is everywhere. American store shelves are loaded with it, thanks to the $5 billion--$5,000,000,000--in goods that the U.S. is importing from China the U.S. each month.

Consumers do have a role, and should be encouraged to ask questions and make complaints. But they will change little or nothing by only quizzing store managers.

And U.S.-based companies have a very crucial role, and should be encouraged to adopt codes of conduct for their overseas operations. But they will change little or nothing by only adopting codes of conduct.

A union friend of mine says that codes of conduct are misnamed: they are really fig leafs to cover up PR embarrassment; they do not end exploitation and are not designed to do so. His harsh judgment is substantiated by the occasional on-site surveys of Asian factories producing for export. Very few of the factories post the codes so that they can be seen in their workplaces. Like the labor legislation of the host countries, the content of codes is kept secret from workers and even from many managers.

Lessons from Harry Wu's Struggles

Harry Wu's ardent campaign against trafficking in China's prison-made goods is instructive. He has dedicated his life to it since finding refuge in the United States in 1985. He has collected a vast amount of documentary proof on how those imports into the United States are continuing. He has risked his life by returning to China to collect further evidence. He achieved the highest form of media recognition with a CBS "60 Minutes" broadcast which presented videotaped proof of the ways that China gets its prison-made products into the United States. No other campaign has rivaled Wu's in raising public awareness. Yet China's prison-made products continue to flow into the United States.

Why? Because the government of the People's Republic of China is not interested in stopping that trade. Nor is it a priority of the government of United States, even though exporting prison-made goods into the United States violates U.S. law.

On paper, China has committed itself to halting such exports and to permitting U.S. inspections of prison labor sites. It did so by signing a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MOU) in 1992 and a follow-up "Statement of Cooperation" in 1993. As the U.S. State Department has publicly acknowledged last year, Chinese authorities have failed cooperate in carrying out the agreement. The reason is simple. The Chinese knew that the whole MOU business was just a charade to defuse Congressional opposition to renewing the lucrative Most Favored Nation (MFN) benefits that China grants to China. The charade worked.

Jeffrey L. Fiedler, director of the Laogai Research Foundation, described the whole charade at length in testimony to Congress on June 6, 1996, and drew this lesson:

"We should look at this experience as illustrative of U.S. policy towards China. The Chinese take an action which either violates our laws or agreements we have reached with them, and the United States government works extremely hard to excuse the Chinese leadership, save them face, and contrive a means to ensure that Chinese behavior does not necessitate a rational response. In this case, the U.S. ignores the fact that China continues to operate the Laogai, that it is a massive system of forced labor, that it continues to violate domestic laws, and [that China] never even partially complied with the spirit or letter of the MOU."
There is an important exception to this indictment: the U.S. government has firmly insisted that Beijing cease violating the "intellectual property rights" owned by corporations such as Disney, Microsoft, Warner Music, and Sony Corp. Sony? Yes, the U.S. has gone to the mat to fight for the rights even of Japanese, German, and other foreign corporations. Beijing got the message when the U.S. threatened multi-billion dollars in sanctions. So, knowing that in this case the U.S. government is serious, China is now seriously trying to halt profiteering from theft. But the U.S. has done nothing to persuade Beijing to halt profiteering from prison labor.

Why the difference? Corporate leaders hold the U.S. government responsible for protecting the rights of business, U.S. and foreign. But so far U.S. government has been under little pressure to protect the rights of workers, domestic or foreign.

Briefly, the moral of the story for shoppers is this: Yes, complain to Toys R Us about merchandising toys made in China's sweatshop. But complain even more to the White House.

Was Singapore Another U.S. Charade?

In a biting column titled "How Clinton's Trade Policy Hamstrings America," Robert Kuttner, co-editor of the American Prospect, had this paragraph analyzing how the U.S. government handled a labor issue at the Singapore ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December:
"At Singapore, acting U.S. trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky made a tough-sounding speech on the importance of adding basic labor standards, such as the right to organize unions and a ban on child labor, to the WTO regime. But word was leaked immediately that this was not a serious U.S. negotiating priority. Barshefsky might as well have said: Treat this as merely a bone we need to throw to the AFL-CIO."
Under the heading "Barshefsky: In Defense of Clinton's Trade Record,"a letter from Ms. Barshefsky in the January 27 issue of Business Week lists what she considers the achievements of the administration's policy. She credits it with reflecting "a strong vision," and cites U.S. government leadership in: Barshefsky's letter of rebuttal in Business Week makes no mention of worker rights standards and ignores Kuttner's charge of bone-throwing at Singapore.

(For background on the WTO meeting in Singapore, see the commentary "Trade and Worker Rights: Still Unsettled" in a previous Bulletin, No. 12.)

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail)

 Bulletin No. II-1: January 18, 1997


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