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:
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
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: email@example.com.
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.
"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 http://www.igc.apc.org/unitedelect/alert.html.
For information on sex discrimination by American companies in Mexico, check out a Human Rights Watch web site at http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/wrp-mexico/alert2a.html.
How would the Blair government pursue the non-protectionist objectives? It would do so, says the report, by:
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 http://www.oneworld.org/oda/.
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.
Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Bulletin No. II-23: December 19, 1997