Fighting for Workers in Vietnam

It was a Wednesday evening in July and I managed to find a good parking space at the Teamsters hall in Lawrenceville.  Inside the union hall all the windows were open; it was very hot and humid that night and there was no AC inside the meeting hall.  I guess the climate was appropriate considering that our topic that night was organizing workers in Vietnam.

Jackie Bong-Wright

Amnesty International was the driver of this particular get-together because they have been publicizing the case of three union organizers who have been jailed in Vietnam.  Their names are Tran Quoc Hien, Doan Van Dien, and Doan Huy Chuong.  Two of these men received 5 year sentences and one received a 9 year sentence.  Their crime? —handing out leaflets and advocating a strike at the Adidas MyPhong shoe factory in January 2010.

The speakers at the forum included Kenneth Miller (local IWW rep), Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh City Councilman), and Fred Redmond (USW VP for Human Relations).  But the main speaker was Jackie Bong-Wright from the Committee to Protect Vietnamese Workers.  Amnesty International (AIUSA) is funding and organizing her speaking engagements around the U.S., not unlike what SDUSA did for Lech Walesa and Polish Solidarity in the 1980’s.

Ms. Bong-Wright presented a detailed view of the plight of Vietnamese workers.  Those workers make about $85 per month, about half what Chinese workers make.  Workers have few benefits, long hours, and poor working conditions.  Hence, companies like Adidas have actually moved factories from other Asian countries to Vietnam to take advantage of the cheap labor.  Paradoxically, President Obama is right now advocating a new free trade deal with 7 countries, including Vietnam.  A recent piece in the Washington Post included the following:

“This agreement will create a potential platform for economic integration across the Asia-Pacific region, a means to advance U.S. economic interests with the fastest-growing economies in the world,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Congress in late 2009 in announcing that negotiations were about to begin.

Moreover, importing shoes from Vietnam at lower costs would benefit some in the United States, either by reducing prices for consumers or raising profits for manufacturers that have their operations overseas.

That last line was supposed to somehow comfort the workers at New Balance, the last company making athletic shoes in America.

In addition to the shoe workers plight, over a million Vietnamese workers are “exported” as laborers to other countries.  These jobs are organized by unscrupulous employment agencies who engage in what the UN describes as Human Trafficking. Forced by rampant unemployment, these workers leave home and seek jobs outside of Vietnam.  They send money home to help support their families.  And they also pay taxes to the Vietnamese government.  However, despite paying $50M a year in taxes, these workers get no benefits or protections from their government.  In many cases workers’ passports are confiscated by their employers making them prisoners in a foreign land.  This slave labor network may be the world’s biggest untold story and is not limited to Vietnam.  Workers from Philippines, India, Indonesia, and many other countries are victimized while their governments look the other way.

Fred Redmond

Panelists had various opinions on what can be done about this.  Fred Redmond of the USW is directly involved in international union organizing.  Most recently he has been engaged in labor negotiations in Africa where American companies own and operate mines.  And the USW has been a great advocate for Los Mineros in Mexico where the company police and the military operate in coordination against workers.  Obviously, he believes that direct organizing of workers has the most impact.

Kenneth Miller

Kenneth Miller of the Wobblies is perhaps Pittsburgh’s best known anti-sweatshop activist.  He has focused his attention on the sports apparel industry where sports fans pay big bucks for team logo apparel, but the workers who make these products work in appalling conditions making pennies.  He believes that the obligation to address the situation in Vietnam and other countries falls on the consumer.  “We live in a union town, yet we don’t pay attention to the workers who make our clothes.  This is wrong.  We can’t say, ‘our government should stop this’.  They won’t.  They created and endorse these trade deals.  They set up a tax structure that encourages companies to behave this way.  They aren’t going to fix it.  We have to do it ourselves”.

Bill Peduto

Bill Peduto is labor’s biggest advocate on Pittsburgh City Council, but he admits that his power is limited.  He can only push local legislation that affects the behavior of city government; he believes that his best effort lies in making Pittsburgh an example for others to follow.  He advocates a corporate triple bottom line: corporate profit, worker benefit, environmental sustainability.  He believes Pittsburgh could be a leader in this movement.  On a personal note, Bill talked about his grandfather who came to America from Italy.  He got a job at Columbia Steel in Carnegie back in the 20’s.  One day he attended a union rally and wasn’t timid about speaking up during the meeting.  His participation was noted by some company men and the next day he was fired from his job.

It would be easy for us to look at Vietnam and be horrified by union organizers being jailed and beaten.  And it would be easy for us to point out that Vietnam has a Communist government.  But even in America, if you are a union organizer you will be punished— maybe not jailed, but you will lose your job and be blacklisted.  Yes, it is illegal to fire workers to advocate unions but it happens every day.  Surveys of American workers consistently show that upwards of 3/4 of workers would join a union if they could.  And yet union membership in the private sector is less than 10% because workers know the consequences of advocating unions.  This is a subject that must be addressed.

Dignity for All

This was a very good weekend for SDUSA.  We participated in two events, one in Buffalo and one in Pittsburgh, both very much oriented to the SD’s core mission.

Michael and Rick tabling in Buffalo

The first event was the annual awards dinner for the Coalition for Economic Justice.  It was held at the Convention Center in Buffalo on Friday evening.  As its name implies, the CEJ is a coalition of labor unions, community groups, and public officials who are dedicated to raising the standard of living in Buffalo by reducing the outsourcing of good paying jobs to other countries and by raising the wages of typically low paying jobs.  During the past year CEJ succeeded in getting a living wage ordinance passed in Buffalo and organizing janitors at HSBC Bank (a large institution that owns a high rise office tower and a sports arena).  It’s now moving on to new challenges.  The affair was heavily attended by local union leaders, and politicians who are seeking election this week. The SD was represented by local Buffalo member and YSD chair, Michael Mottern, and me, National Co-Chair Rick D’Loss, who drove up from Pittsburgh for the event.  Michael did a beautiful job of organizing our participation, and the table as well. It was impressive!  We made good contacts and enjoyed ourselves in the process.

Dr. Ragheb speaks at the Carnegie Shul

And then on Sunday afternoon, SDUSA co-sponsored a speaking engagement at Congregation Ahavath Achim in Carnegie, PA, near Pittsburgh.  About 50 attendees listened to Dr. Youssef Ragheb talk about his personal experiences growing up in Cairo and protesting the Nasser government in 1968.  Then he compared his experiences with the recent revolution.  He said that the government security force in Egypt has about 1.4 million police, and everyone lives in fear.  A person can disappear for simply saying the wrong thing in public.  But he shared with us an encounter that he had last year that demonstrated that things had changed. He was visiting Egypt on vacation and talked with a waiter at his hotel.  The young man had a masters degree in engineering but unfortunately was waiting tables in order to make a living.  He was extremely frustrated about his job prospects and not afraid to say so, even though a co-worker warned him to keep quiet.  “Egypt is a pot that is ready to boil over”, the waiter said.  True enough, on January 25 of this year, a million people walked into the streets knowing very well that they could be shot by the police.

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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