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.

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 14.

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.

 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.


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