Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 23: December 19, 1997 
World Labor Leaders on Present Financial Turmoil:

'Globalization Betraying Millions of Workers'

The world's largest organization of working men and women, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), blames "globalization without governance" for the economic and financial crisis now reverberating through Asia and beyond. Some 100 labor leaders from 141 countries and territories, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, at an ICFTU board meeting on December 18, agreed on a sharp critique of the prevailing form of globalization and how to reform it.

What is clear, said ICFTU General Secretary Bill Jordan, is that millions of workers, rather than "wealthy elites which caused this financial chaos," are now paying the price. He added:

"This crisis was predictable, because without a social dimension and a strong framework of regulation, globalization is inherently unstable, and allows financial speculation to ruin entire economies. Ordinary working people are now paying with their jobs for the incompetence and corruption of a few very wealthy individuals and their international backers."

'Fundamental Reforms' Urged, Nationally and Globally

A lengthy statement approved by the ICFTU executive board was not anti-globalization or protectionist but urged "fundamental reforms" of the present system on both national and international levels. Among the specific recommendations were:

(A full copy of the ICFTU statement on the crisis is available on the ICFTU Web site at:

A New Corporate Code Against Toyland Sweatshops

"Mattel creates products for children,...not jobs." With those words, Jill E. Barad, chief executive officer of the world's largest toy maker, on Nov. 20 announced a code of conduct covering its global operations. Among other things, the code prohibits the employment of anyone under the age of 16 in any factory making Barbie dolls, Matchbox cars, Cabbage Patch dolls, and other Mattel products. This compares with a minimum age of 14 typically found in codes adopted during the past few years.

The code sets down other requirements--such as "a safe working environment" and no "forced or prison labor of any kind"--in general terms. Their practical meaning will depend on how they are enforced and monitored in 15 Mattel-owned plants and some 300 contractor-operated facilities. An independent audit and monitoring system of Mattel's far-flung operations is being established by Dr. S. Prakesh Sethi, professor of management in the school of business at Baruch College in New York.

"The time has indeed come for global codes of conduct," Sethi said. "Multinational corporations cannot escape this challenge unless they are willing to confront even greater societal conflict and universal public protest, which may lead to increased [government] intervention."
Barad, one of the highest-ranking women in corporate America, started pressing for a code soon after taking over as CEO at the beginning of 1997. A company spokesperson explained one motivation behind the initiative: "No one wants to invest in a company they believe is acting irresponsibly."

Unfavorable publicity probably played a part in Mattel's decision. A year ago "Dateline NBC" reported that Indonesian factory girls as young as 13 were making clothes for Mattel's Barbie doll at wages of $2 a day.

Will Rest of Toy Industry Reform Its Practices?

The question now is whether the rest of the multi-billion dollar toy industry will follow Mattel's lead, particularly in China, the world's largest exporter of toys, dolls, and other playthings. Mattel says it has already dropped two contractors in China that refused to comply with company-mandated safety standards.

Retailing of toys and games is one of the most profitable industries in the United States, dependent almost entirely on imports of products manufactured mostly by poor young women abroad. For insights into the business side of the industry, check the Web page of the Toy Manufacturers of America at
In a February address, TMA Chairman George Volanakis complained of "sensational reporting by TV producers and reporters alike." The industry still seems to regard its working conditions as just a PR problem, curable by "more balanced reporting," as Volanakis put it. TMA statements posted on the Web respond to charges about toys dangerous for children but are silent about factory conditions dangerous for the industry's workers.

"Stop Toying With Human Lives" is the title of a new report issued by a coalition advocating a decent life for toy workers. Contact the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, 57 Peking Road, 3/Floor, Kowloon, Hong Kong; fax 852-2724-5098. Email:

Update on Union Leader Jailed in Indonesia

President Clinton himself has intervened in the case of Muchtar Pakpahan, the Indonesian labor leader long imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Clinton raised Pakpahan's plight directly with Indonesian President Soeharto during their head-to-head meeting Nov. 24 on the fringe of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vancouver.

Yet in Jakarta Pakpahan's trial and trials continue. Arrested in July 1996, he was indicted five months later under Indonesia's draconian Anti-Subversion law, which carries a maximum penalty of death. Specifically, he is charged with making statements, orally and in writing, that "can disturb the legal government's power and authority or can sow hatred, distortion, riot, and concerns among the people."

The military government's real problem with Pakpahan, however, hinges on his role as a trade union leader. As head of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union (SBSI), Pakpahan has called for an increase in the prevailing minimum wage, now less than $2 a day, and has lobbied for an expansion of free public education. "Such statements," the formal indictment against him says, "can sow hatred among the people."

The U.S. government grants Indonesia generous duty-free trade benefits, which are supposed to depend on Indonesia's respect for worker rights. The AFL-CIO has long petitioned the U.S. government to withdraw those privileges from Indonesia unless it halts its reprisals against independent trade union leaders. Ten years ago, for example, the AFL-CIO charged Indonesia with "long-standing, repressive labor postures" of a gravity sufficient to disqualify it from benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP). But both Republic and Democratic administrations have continued to ignore the governing U.S. statute and continued to bestow special favors on the Indonesian government and the corporations that do business with it.

As a concession to President Clinton, the Indonesia government might--might--now finally release Muchtar Pakpahan. If so, good. But if it does not also begin reforming its repressive labor policies, Indonesia should lose its duty-free U.S. trade benefits. It should have lost them years ago. It hasn't, and that's the real Washington political scandal involving Indonesia.

Breakthrough For Workers on Mexican Border

A common ploy to subvert the rights of workers is for management to impose labor coverage with a "ghost union." The powerful Mexican Confederation of Labor (CTM), with intimate ties to the Mexican government, has long obligingly played the ghost role in many of the 2,700 "maquiladora" factories that enjoy tax-free and other privileges for exports to the United States. But after a turbulent six-month organizing drive, the Korean owners of a Tijuana factory finally agreed this month to dismiss their ghost and recognize a real live union.

"This is a historic victory for our movement," Ernrique Hernandez, an independent organizer, told the New York Times."For the first time, workers in a maquiladora plant have won a fight to choose the kind of union they want."

Unless sabotaged, the new agreement, covering just 119 workers at a Han Young factory making tractor-trailer parts for the Korean giant Hyundai, may serve as a precedent to improve conditions for the 1,000,000 workers, mostly women, in the maquiladora industry.

In a typical fashion, the factory owner, Han Young de Mexico S.A., had publicly claimed to have "no objection" to the right of workers to organize. In practice, though, the company fought bitterly to repress that right with firings, physical intimidation, and bribery attempts. In fact, before the workers voted to form their own union, the company said that a union victory would mean a shutdown of the plant.

The Han Young workers benefit from the support of a U.S. labor network that in October organized demonstrations in front of Hyundai dealerships in 25 U.S. cities. For details check the Web site of the United Electrical Workers at

For information on sex discrimination by American companies in Mexico, check out a Human Rights Watch web site at

Blair Government Blesses 'Core Labor Standards'

In a long report billed as a new approach to international development, the British government records its commitment to "working for the world-wide observance of core labor standards for all workers." It defends these standards as human rights, but warns that they "must not be misused for protectionist purposes to deprive developing countries of the opportunity to benefit from their comparative advantages."

How would the Blair government pursue the non-protectionist objectives? It would do so, says the report, by:

As with all such policy statements, everything hinges on how the principles are implemented. The UK's representatives in their many upcoming international negotiations, including those involving the World Trade Organization, will have ample opportunities to demonstrate what the UK Government 's priorities mean in practice.

But the document already sends a significant signal: it ignores a key WTO issue, the proposal for inserting a "social clause" into international trade agreements to link trade privileges with respect for core labor standards. So far, despite the efforts of the U.S. government and the international labor movement, the WTO has refused even to discuss the issue. The Labor policy statement's silence on this controversial point is disappointing news for the many millions of working women and men deprived of their basic rights.

The full text of "Eliminating World Poverty: a Challenge for the 21st Century," a report presented to Parliament in November, is available on the Web at

Coming Down Out of the Clouds into the Real World

One good thing has happened as a result of the tumult in Asia's financial markets. The giddy euphoria over the marvels of globalization is gone. Faith in what Pope John Paul II condemned as the "error of economism" (extolling economics as the sole driving force in human affairs) remains strong, but not quite as obsessive as it used to be.

Take the column by Economics Writer Robert J. Samuelson, "Globalization's Downside," which appeared on the op-ed page of the Washington Post on December 17. There, in explaining how "markets...regularly blunder," Samuelson writes:

"Commerce--whether local, national, or global--does not exist in a vacuum. It requires common customs, understandings, procedures, and rules to govern ordinary transactions and handle inevitable crises. For the world economy, this foundation is weak."
Samuelson rightly points out the weak foundation on which the world economy is built. Overcoming that weakness requires the highest priority attention. It requires at least the kind of resources and resourcefulness now devoted to (say) NASA's program to find rocks on Mars. Instead, we're relying on the International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Treasury, twin disciples of economism, to save us from disaster.

And finally

A very joyous Christmas to all, wherever you may be. Let's keep in touch. See you next year!

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

 Bulletin No. II-23: December 19, 1997


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