Labor Protections in Trade Deals Are a Cruel Joke

by Jeff Ballinger, former national director of SDUSA.  This piece was first published in Labor Notes on October 4, 2011.

These Korean unionists protested the impending free trade deal. Experience with previous trade deals makes it obvious global brands like Walmart like the current sweatshop system just the way it is. Photo: KCTU.

It’s a cruel joke that Democratic politicians are trotting out language about “labor standards” to defend imminent trade agreements with Colombia, Korea, and Panama. President Barack Obama sent Congress all three deals Monday, and lawmakers are expected to move quickly to approve them before the Korean president arrives October 13. If legislators OK the deals as they stand, they will have no learned nothing from previous trade pacts. Just look at the labor rights requirements in the 2001 U.S.-Jordan Free Trade Agreement. These “protections” include boilerplate “core labor standards” on non-discrimination and rights to organize and bargain. The stalwart anti-sweatshop team of Charlie Kernaghan and Barbara Briggs at the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights uncovered a different story on the ground. They reported last year that in one Jordanian factory, 1,200 guest workers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and India—75 percent of them women—had been trafficked, stripped of their passports, and held under conditions of indentured servitude. Workers had been cheated of their promised wages, earning an average of just 35 cents an hour. The minimum wage in Jordan is 74.5 cents. The women were paid, at most, just $35.77 a week. The “labor rights” protections of that trade agreement proved an empty promise. Continue reading

The 150 Years War

Each year, after the sun sets on the 14th day of Hebrew month of Nisan, Jews retell the story of the Exodus at an annual family feast. The transition from slavery to freedom, orchestrated by God’s hand, is a great story with universal appeal.  I never grow tired of telling it.  Last week I received in the mail a Passover appeal from the Jewish Labor Committee.  The headline read, “Pharaoh refuses to negotiate; hundreds of thousands of Israelite workers walk of job site.”  While catchy and humorous, it none-the-less reminds us of a simple fact about slavery— it’s all about getting free labor. After all, one group of people doesn’t enslave another because they are lonely and in need of company!  No, they do so to acquire laborers.  The exodus of the Jews from Egypt took place 3500 years ago, but the story is still relevant.

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Is Corporate "Responsibility" the New Justice?

by Jeffrey Ballinger

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.

—Frederick Douglass, 1857

When U.S. students and Honduran workers scored an impressive win over Nike earlier last year, what they had to overcome in their struggle was nothing less than the debasement of political and human rights reportage, where workers’ struggles are addressed as “corporate responsibility” issues and the fight for a livable wage hardly appears. In the mid-1990s, firms discovered that they could only “manage” their supply chain insofar as perceptions of it could be controlled—that is, what the world sees. There are two other key points about the supply chain: You cannot inject justice into it or extract the exploitation from it.

For workers, the rise of outsourcing in many industries is the biggest foundation-shaking change in capitalism since the Industrial Revolution; assembly-line workers now toil for two groups of shareholders: those of the ultimate bosses—the buyers (the big brands)—and the contractors. Some of these contractors have become quite big themselves. The CEO of shoe-maker Yue Yuen, Tsai Chi Jui, recently joined the ranks of billionaires. In the same year, a mere product endorser, Tiger Woods, became a billionaire.

How did university students achieve a string of victories for Latin American workers? United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) has assisted more than 4,000 college-logo garment workers in Honduras and the Dominican Republic by deploying grassroots pressure tactics and carefully crafted appeals to university administrators. Even in the midst of a global economic downturn, diligent research combined with determined activism on the part of the wronged workers forced Russell Athletic to reopen a factory that was closed to thwart unionization. It produced an agreement between Nike and the CGT union of Honduras to pay restitution to 2,100 workers illegally denied severance benefits when two suppliers for the shoe giant closed abruptly last year. In addition, the students’ persistence in seeking ethical alternatives has led the largest brand selling to bookstores, Knights Apparel, to pay more than triple the Dominican Republic’s minimum wage to hundreds of workers. Merchandise from the Alta Gracia factory is already on 140 campuses.

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Cambodian Workers Fired

by Jeff Ballinger

From Phnom Penh Post:  “…industry representatives have disputed the number of people fired and suspended after the strikes. GMAC Secretary General Ken Loo said yesterday that 38 workers were dismissed and 358 suspended, most of whom had since been  allowed to return to work. ‘Most if not all have been reinstated,’ he said.”
Whatever the true number is, the unrest over the summer underscores a huge problem with the “Better Factories” model promoted by the ILO and foreign donors and now being expanded to other countries.  In fact, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has underwritten “Better Work” in Nicaragua ($2 mil.) – praised by footwear/apparel industry association.

Nearly 800 Cambodian garment workers fired over strike
2010-12-03
By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH, Dec 3 (Reuters) – Sixteen Cambodian factories producing clothing for big brands such as Adidas AG and Gap Inc have dismissed nearly 800 employees for taking part in a nationwide strike, a union leader said on Friday.

Unions were preparing to issue demands to the factories to reinstate the 799 sacked workers by Dec. 15 or face legal action and possibly more strikes, which could further disrupt a sector that is a big currency earner for the impoverished country.

“We will take action in accordance with the law and we are trying to avoid a strike,” Kong Athit, deputy president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (CCAWDU), told Reuters.

“The government and the courts have already ordered that these workers be reinstated, so these dismissals are illegal,” added Kong Athit, whose union represents 40,000 workers.

The union said the factories that dismissed the workers produced clothing for major Western companies including Marks and Spencer Group PLC , Tesco PLC , H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB , Puma , Next Plc and Inditex , the world’s biggest clothing retailer and owner of Zara.

Those sacked were among the estimated 210,000 garment workers — about two-thirds of the sector’s workforce — from 95 factories who took part in the September strike to demand better working conditions and a wage increase to $93 a month from $56.

The strike was halted after three days when the government agreed to hold more talks to avoid damage to the industry, which is Cambodia’s third-largest foreign currency earner after agriculture and tourism.

Garments also provide a vital source of income for rural families, and the sector is credited with helping to reduce poverty in a country where about a third of the population live on less than $1 a day.

The country’s garment exports rose 12 percent in the first half of 2010 from a year earlier, hitting $1.25 billion, according to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, an independent think tank.

Worker disputes this year in China, mostly at foreign-owned factories, have raised questions over whether other low-cost Asian manufacturing centres would also have to pay higher wages as their workers became more assertive. (Editing by Martin Petty) ((prak.chanthul@thomsonreuters.com; +855 23 99 2102; Reuters Messaging: prak.chanthul.reuters.com@reuters.net)) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, e-mail to news.feedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com

What you won’t learn about Pakistan in the WikiLeaks revelations

By Jeff Ballinger

Recent reports from three disparate sources provide an explanation for the parlous state of publiceducation in Pakistan, a major factor behind increasing instability there.  In early June, both Brookings and the International Labor Rights Forum released studies which bespeak a fateful symmetry; Brookings’ researchers point to tens of millions of dollars (each year for several years) pledged by Western donors to shore up the long-neglected school system – far from enough to fix it – while the ILRF report documented wage-cheating in the soccer ball-stitching industry.  Those greedy bosses join thousands of others according to our third field report – an August newspaper story quoting Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (Piler).  He says that 80 per cent of employers across Pakistan fail to pay the miserly minimum wage of PKR  7,000 per month.  Added up, it is a figure which easily matches the donors’ education dollars.  Numbers from the Brookings report show that the free schooling offered by the religious madrasas attract hundreds of thousands of young men whose parents cannot afford modest school fees that would assist in reforming the dysfunctional state system.

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