Vol. III, Bulletin No.13.                                                                         July 2, 1998 

Problem of Compliance Remains as Serious as Ever

'Universal' Worker Rights Set for 174 Nations

Fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world now has a Declaration covering the human rights of its working men and women.  The Declaration, adopted at the annual conference of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva June 18, commits the ILO's 174 member states to a set of "fundamental rights" spelled out in ILO conventions, namely:

Now, for the first time, under the terms of the Declaration "all member [states], even if they have not ratified the conventions in question, have an obligation from the very fact of membership in the Organization, to respect, to promote, and to realize...[these] fundamental rights."  Further, the policies and practices of all 174 member states will be reviewed annually for compliance with the basic rights in the Declaration.

(For the full text of the Declaration, check the ILO's Web site at http://www.ilo.org/public/english/10ilc/ilc86/com-dtxt.htm. For the AFL-CIO statement on the declaration, see http://www.aflcio.org/publ/press98/pr0618.htm.)

Is the Declaration Nothing More Than Pious Rhetoric?

The test of any Declaration is not in how its rhetoric reads but in how it affects the human condition.  Will the new Declaration help change the lives of  the men, women, and children who toil in the world's sweatshops?

Apart from publicity, the ILO has no enforcement mechanisms such as those wielded by the World Trade Organization, which can apply sanctions, and has not hesitated to do so even against the United States. The ILO's sole tool is moral suasion, a force that can convince or shame even the powerful, but not often enough.  Far from often enough.

Under the major procedural change adopted at the June conference, the ILO can now review the situation of workers even in the United States, which, to its shame, has ratified only one of the seven ILO conventions guaranteeing the basic rights of workers.  (See "Is the U.S. Guilty of Hypocrisy?")

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Continuing 'Religious' Contention at the ILO

Departing from the clarity of language with which it was written, the new ILO Declaration on worker rights ends strangely with these words: "the comparative advantage of any country should in no way be called into question by this Declaration and its follow-up."  The jargonish proviso, tacked on over the objections of the AFL-CIO and others, could be used to undermine the whole Declaration.

In its extreme form, the notion of  "comparative advantage," imported from the economic and trade professions, means that when the market efficiency seems to conflict with worker rights, market efficiency must always prevail.  Even the harshest forms of exploitation--drafting little boys and girls into factory labor instead of enrolling them in primary schools--can be justified as offering a "comparative advantage" to some countries.
A new book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes, puts the theory of "comparative advantage" under the critical scrutiny of history (the book's index has 17 significant citations for comparative advantage, and misses three others). Landes, professor of history and economics at Harvard, describes comparative advantage as often forming a rigid doctrinal element in the "religion of free trade," and points out that "nothing rouses more contention than issues of faith."  It is a bad omen that the ILO is still besieged by such contention.

An 'Equivocal' Message on Sexual Harassment

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent "an unequivocal message to American business: sexual misconduct is to be taken seriously and any company that doesn't can expect to pay the price."  So said the Washington Post June 27 in a page-one news story on two of the latest of a series of Court rules strengthening the law governing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Unequivocal?  Not quite.

The decisions, and the law upon which they are based, cover only sexual harassment in workplaces within the borders of the United States.  Left uncovered are the vast number of women employed by U.S. businesses and their contractors in factories and offices outside the United States.  While not counted in U.S. labor force statistics, many millions of these women in Mexico, China, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, and other foreign countries work for us as surely as women workers in Illinois or Georgia.  Every U.S. department store is loaded with the garments, dolls, toys, shoes, VCRs, and innumerable other products they make for us.

Price to Pay in Normal, Ill., $34 Million; in Shenzhen, China, Zilch

Last month Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, announced that it would pay $34 million to settle a lawsuit for the sexual harassment of more than 300 women in its plant in Normal, Ill.  In our report, "Mitsubishi's Unsettling $34 Million Settlement," we asked: "What is the moral difference between 'groping, grabbing, and touching' women making cars for us in Normal, Ill., and doing that (and worse) to women making toys and dolls for us in Shenzhen, China?"

An economist could analyze the difference in market terms: U.S. policies on the labor market are now more "rigid," whereas those in China are more "flexible," giving China a "comparative advantage" in the global economy.  Morally, however, sexual harassment is utterly reprehensible wherever it occurs.  And those complicit in it, especially the U.S. companies that use Asian sweatshops as a source, bear a heavy responsibility for the evil--and for correcting it--wherever it occurs.  Most corporations, unfortunately, do not have codes of conduct that bar sexual harassment in their foreign operations.  And many with a code have no system of enforcing it.

A Loophole for Corporations, Thanks to Globalization

Thus, the global economy offers a vast loophole for a U.S. corporation that wishes to escape its responsibilities under U.S. law: just transfer its business to places where there is no price to pay for violating women workers.

Of course, this is a loophole that can be closed.  It can be done, not by shutting down our borders, but by adding firm rules against sexual harassment in trade agreements, including regional ones (such as NAFTA) and those of the World Trade Organization.  Achieving that important goal requires vigorous U.S. governmental leadership. It also requires a change of heart by U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations, all of which now oppose any restrictions on the "flexibility" they now enjoy outside the United States.

(On July 3 the New York Times carried a letter of mine dealing with sexual harassment in businesses run by U.S. businesses and their contractors abroad.  The crucial points covered in the two paragraphs above were reduced to one sentence: "Rules against sexual harassment must be included in trade agreements.")

Diary: Reflections on Clinton and China

What to make of President Clinton's visit to China?  What to make of China today?

In the Washington Post of June 30, Columnist Richard Cohen violated a widespread taboo by accurately describing China as "a one-party dictatorship."  That unpleasant truth is not sweetened by the unprecedented access that Clinton had to China's media.  I'm holding back my applause until the Communist Party gives five minutes of such free access to just one Chinese outside the Party's power structure.

President Jiang Zemin had every reason to smile happily during his joint appearances with Clinton.  The visit, on top of all the other bountiful U.S. rewards to the Beijing regime, reinforced the Party's prestige and power. Gracious support came even from U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.  In Beijing on June 25 he praised China as an "island of stability" in a region buffeted by economic turmoil.

Your assessment of China today depends in large part on the standards you apply.  For the Clinton administration, China's "stability" ranks high.  For the Communist Party, stability is the highest value of all.  It is a polite justification for the Party's continuing monopoly of power. 

 A Fourth of July Prayer

"Only in human solidarity will we find liberty."--excerpt from a prayer on Independence Day, published in 1988 by the U.S. Catholic Conference.

Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. III-13, July 2, 1998
Robert A. Senser, editor

Copyright 1998
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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