Human Rights for Workers Bulletin
Vol. I, No. 1: February 11, 1996
Taking a Bow
Hi! Right off, I might as well confess to something. For years now, I've
floated the idea of editing a newsletter on worker rights issues. Sad to
say, nobody invited me to do so. And as for publishing one on my own, the
writing and editing I could handle, but not all the rest that goes with
it--getting the newsletter printed, promoted, mailed, and so on. Fortunately,
electronic publishing has changed all that. I don't even have to worry
about how many copies I should get printed.
But let's get down to the basic question. Why publish a bulletin
like this at all? What stands out for me are two developments in the world.
The Good News: Something is stirring out there.
New concerns. Many of them are global in dimension. For example:
In short: clearly there is a growing--even unprecedented--level
of awareness of labor market issues that the market by itself is not designed
to handle, despite highly advertised claims to the contrary.
More and more businesses are adopting codes of conduct, either on their
own initiative or because of outside pressure.
More and more people are becoming concerned about child labor and are agitating
against it in both developed and developing countries.
More and more international organizations are now seized with issues involving
the rights of working people, and that includes even the new World Trade
More and more non-governmental organizations are concerned, in whole or
in part, with issues affecting ordinary workers, including women workers.
And Now The Bad News: Despite this increasing level
of sensitivity, the problems that arouse concern are still there, and in
some cases are getting worse. This is certainly true in the case of child
labor, so much so that in much of South Asia, for example, the expansion
of international commerce is actually fostering the ancient scourge of
child labor and even child slavery. Yes, the consciences of many people--within
South Asia too--rebel against this inhuman trend, but they are losing out
to more powerful forces. Strangely, some voices even in respectable circles
rationalize this trafficking in children. In an article included herein
(see "How the Global Economy Promotes Child Labor"),
I deal with briefly with a few of these rationalizations, but there are
many more, and we'll discuss them in the future.
Yet, serious as the exploitation of children is, what about workers
who, after reaching a certain minimum age, suddenly qualify legally to
enter the full-time labor force? The dividing line is artificial. In many
countries, it is illegal, at least on paper, to exploit a child under 14,
but it's perfectly okay if you do so starting the day when she or he reaches
And you can get away with such abuses, because usually nobody is there
to stop you. I'm not making this up. Far more than realized, the labor
markets around the world, even in industrialized countries, are still jungles.
You can make her work 10 to 12 hours a day, six or seven days.
You can endanger her health and even her life in an unhealthy or unsafe
You can swear at her and beat her if she makes a mistake.
You can fire her without notice, for no reason, without even paying money
still due her.
Where are the Web sites that focuses on such violations of the
workers' human rights? Let me know their URLs right away so that I can
publicize them here. The more, the better. The huge gap that now exists
in WWW needs to be filled.
Treacherous Union Voyages to Beijing, China
More and more union leaders around the world are getting invitations from
the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to come and visit the
People's Republic of China. The temptation to accept is powerful. Some
can't resist, and even provide some fancy justifications for succumbing.
One rationale is that a visit to one of the many new foreign-invested
enterprises in China will provide the opportunity to meet Chinese trade
unionists. False. The latest evidence on this score comes from Anita Chan,
a member of the faculty of Asian studies of the Australian National University
in Canberra, who has done years of field work in China, including on-site
research in the factories and offices of economically booming seaboard
of South China. As a result, Chan, an ethnic Chinese who speaks Chinese,
has gained keen insights into the real-life situation in China's workplaces.
Chan is not afraid to call a spade a space. The organizations
that the Beijing regime is implanting in foreign-invested enterprises,
she writes, are "pseudo-unions." She cites this specific example of how
management dominates the new organizations masquerading as unions:
In Shenzhen's Shekou District in 1993, of the 250 enterprise
unions, 13% were headed by [top] managers or deputy managers, 44% by department
managers, and 46.8% by managerial cadres. Despite the predominant managerial
presence in the Shekou union [structure], it is held bp as a national model
by the ACFTU for having attained a 98% unionization rate over the past
few years, entirely disregarding the phony character of the unions."
There are more and more rank-and-file initiatives to form honest-to-goodness
unions, but these are crushed through management-Party-police cooperation,
and visitors can only dream seeing any of the workers involved. Meantime,
the Chinese government permits, and sometimes actively encourages, both
foreign and domestic employers to do what is a crime for Chinese workers--setting
up independent organizations of their own. "Unfortunately," Chan writes
in her study, the ACFTU is doing nothing "to counteract the emerging offensive
of organized employers." She predicts that the number of wildcat strikes
initiated at the grass roots lever will "continue to escalate in number
and violence because the new enterprise unions are not serving the function
of protecting worker rights...and because the peasant-workers are increasingly
aware of their rights."
Why would any union delegation accept to be a hosted by a state/Party
bureaucracy that plagiarizes the name "union" and joins in suppressing
the rights of China's workers? I can see some foreign unionists trying
to go to China, accompanied by their own Chinese-language interpreter,
on a low-key fact-finding mission that is not under the auspices of the
ACFTU or of any of its component bodies. I can also see going there to
make the rounds of Ministries to demand the release of the countless trade
unionists being held in China's vast Gulag--and to march across Tiananmen
Square with their names on placards demanding, in English and Chinese:
Carrying placards for such brave men and women, and getting arrested for
doing so, would be an act of solidarity with Wei Jingsheng and the many
worker activists now suffering behind bars. I for one do not have the courage
to undertake such a public protest in China. Neither would I join a pilgrimage
to the ACFTU. Because, unwittingly, I would be stabbing Wei Jingsheng and
his colleagues in the back.
"Free Wang Changhuai," serving 15 years for heading the Hunan Workers Federation.
"Free Liu Jingsheng," a chemical workers arrested in 1992 for organizing
the Free Labor Union of China.
"Free Liao Hetang," who with several fellow workers was "detained" (and
not heard from since) because his team was publishing an independent labor
bulletin in Shenzhen Special Zone.
"Free Tong Yi," sentenced to a labor camp because she served as the secretary
and interpreter to Wei Jingsheng, who himself is serving 15 years because
he dared to act like a free human being in a country that is not free.
COMING in Human Rights for Workers: an article on Wei Jingsheng and
the challenge that his fate, and that of people like him, poses to the
United States and other nations that are strengthening Beijing's repressive
and militaristic regime.
Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
Copyright 1996 (Send e-mail)
Bulletin #1: February 11, 1996