Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Labor Secretary Inherits a Mess

Under a Labor Department that has been mismanaged for years, uncounted numbers of workers – perhaps millions -- became victims of wage theft by employers. In testimony before a Congressional committee, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) yesterday described how sloppy enforcement of the law left low-wage workers particularly vulnerable to having employers steal their earnings.

Following up on scandals reported in the media, the GAO assigned a team of undercover agents to pose as workers or employers to test how the field offices of the department’s wage and hour division handled 10 types of complaints typically voiced across the country.

Here are three examples given of how department employees dealt with fictitious violations of minimum pay, child labor, and other issuest under their jurisdiction.

n A receptionist in Virginia paid less than the minimum wage: the department’s investigator accepted without question the employer’s refusal to pay back wages and counseled the office worker to file a private lawsuit.
n A meat packer in California using children to run heavy equipment: four months after receiving this anonymous tip, the wage and hour division office had still not conducted any investigative work, and never recorded the complaint in the department’s data base.
n A house painter in Texas who did not receive his final paycheck: the division employee accepted the employer’s word that he would pay, and closed the case as “agreed to pay” despite the painter’s claim that he got not a cent.

The department’s statistics on back wages collected, and the number of employees receiving their back pay, are overstated, according to the GAO, because “an unknown number” of complaints recorded as resolved did not in fact result in the worker’s receiving the back pay due

More than 100,000,000 workers are covered under federal labor laws enforced by the wage and hour division (WHD). The GAO’s overall assessment was that the WHD had “an ineffective system that [particularly] discourages wage theft complaints.

The new Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, who has been in office less than two weeks, vowed to take the GAO findings seriously. The understaffed WHD will be adding 250 new investigators.

Under Secretary Solis, the Department of Labor is set to return to the mission for which it was founded in 1913: “to foster, promote, and develop the welfare of working people.”

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

A new book appearing on Amazon.Com

I was happily surprised today to learn that my book, Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers, can be ordered through Later, it will also be available for on-line purchase at Barnes and Noble and Borders.

Whether bookstores will stock it depends on demand, which is still unknown, as is its easy availability outside the United States.

To my further surprise, amazon com is also selling used copies of my earlier book, Primer on Interracial Justice, published in 1982 by Helicon Press, which I have not bragged about of late because it is out of print, as well as out of date. And is also marketing copies of a (copyrighted) review article of mine on how Solidarity won freedom of association, published by the Monthly Labor Review of the U.S. Labor Department.

As before, Justice at Work can be ordered through Xlibris, but the delivery time is not as rapid as through

My only disappointment is that does not yet carry the image of my book cover. The cover is a co-production of my wife, our son Thuy, and myself. I am proud of it, and hope you will find that the book’s content matches its quality.

UPDATE: Amazon now carries the image of the book's cover. Take a look.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fighting Sweatshops, Recession or No Recession

In the midst of a global recession, isn’t it time to suspend campaigns against sweatshops? Not at all, says Jim Ready, a 10-year veteran in the struggle for worker rights.

In fact, he has intensified his anti- sweatshop campaign, Team Sweat, with new initiatives that include:
· Inserting an ad on Facebook that is attracting a thousand hits a day;
· Launching a new Weblog called Team Sweat.
· Working on a documentary that includes an interview with Nobelist Joseph Stiglttz.
· Planning a May Day demonstration in New York City.

That’s on top of work schedule already heavy with varied activities, all focused on Nike, the No. 1 apparel distributor in the world, which has its many wares produced by 800,000 workers in 700 factories in 52 countries throughout the world.

Keady can rattle off Nike statistics because he himself is a Nike shareholder and attended Nike’s shareholder meeting in Oregon in September last year. During the meeting he attempted to put on the record Nike's failure to pay a living wage, but management edited out most of the content of Ready's statement/query to the board of directors.

After the official meeting, Keady had a brief conversation with Mark Parker, CEO of Nike Inc., followed by a three-hour meeting with five members of Nike’s executive team. According to his Web report, he pushed hard on two key issues:

1. The current wages paid to Nike’s workers in Indonesia are not enough for these workers to meet their basic living needs. He based this claim partly on his own personal experience in 2000, when he and a colleague lived on $1 a day for two months. (See “Learning How You Survive on $1 a day.")

2. The ultimate goal of the campaign is to have Nike’s Indonesia workers become actual Nike employees, rather than subtracted workers.

There was a “lively discussion” covering a lot of ground, but not the issue of turning subcontracted workers into employees, an ideal that the executives dismissed by ignoring it. One result from that give-and-take was what Keady regarded as a commitment that members of Nike’s executive team would, sometime in the next months, visit Nike plants in Indonesia with Keady to hear Nike workers themselves make the case for increasing wages and holding negotiations for a collective bargaining contract. So far that joint inquiry has not taken place, although it may in July, when Keady will making be his latest fact-finding visit to Indonesia, where Nike still employs some 110,000 workers.

Keady remains optimistic. “We have momentum,” he says, in the context of his 10- year campaign.

In a phone conversation with Keady today, I wondered what motivates him to keep on. “A big part of it is my faith,” he says. He is grounded in a liberation theology that values working toward the kingdom of God in the here and now, through our daily work.

Keady is also energized by the sessions he has with groups of college students and others, 20 to 40 of them a year. These are interactive, starting with asking people to check the label of origin on the clothes they wear, followed by a multi-media presentation depicting the plight of the foreign workers, mostly young female, who make those clothes.

He finds that the typical audience is shocked by the facts. At the end of his most recent session, at Canisius College in Buffalo, he got a standing ovation at the end, and dozens of students approached him afterwards, wanting to get involved.

Those sessions are stimulating in another way. He hears challenging questions, the most recent centering on the recession and whether having a sweatshop job isn't better than having no job at all. He has thought through an insightful response. Its most telling part, in a nutshell, goes like this: Paying a living wage to those still working would have little effect on Nike’s revenues ($18,600,000,000 in 2008) and would aid the nation’s economic recovery by its multiplier effect throughout the economy.

The either/or question, Isn’t a sweatshop job better than no job at all?, has a seductive appeal, I find. Certainly, for an unemployed person (and dependents) a sweatshop job is better than no job, at least in the abstract, but not always in real life. What if the sweatshop is rife with sexual abuse? Or if sweatshop conditions endanger your health and safety?

Keady points out that Catholic social teaching is clear about this type of "choice." "Church teaching," he insists, "tells us that if a person, out of fear or desperation, accepts working conditions that they would not normally accept, then that is an injustice. If it is an injustice, then people of faith have a moral obligation to fight to end that injustice."

The either/or choice also has a policy dimension. Even if economic conditions are so bad that many persons have a sweatshop job as their only choice, should that grim reality determine the policies of governments and non-governmental groups?

That’s a common good issue, different from the issue of individual good. There is a difference, often slighted. Women of 55 with abusive husbands may have no choice except to stay married, but that should not require abandoning public or private efforts to end wife abuse.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Business schools’ guilt for our financial mess

Could it be that “the way business students are taught may have contributed to the most serious economic crisis in decades?”

That question is now on the minds of analysts, “and even educators themselves,” reports Kelley Holland in the March 15 business section of the New York Times.

For one educator, Rakesh Khurana , a professor at Harvard Business School, business schools are at fault for failing to teach students that they are professionals, stewards with long-term economic goals, not agents of shareholders responsible for maximizing shareholder wealth.

“A kind of market fundamentalism took hold in business education,” Khurana said. “The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything but financial results.”

Holland’s quick survey did not uncover a consensus on whether business schools contributed to the current disorder in the global market. One professor of finance does plan to incorporate the changed world into his class this fall. Among other things, he will add a discussion of whether the market is always right when it values things. “You would not have had that discussion three years ago,” he said, inadvertently revealing that business school educators are part of A.I.G.’s backstory.

The Times article fell short of the clarity of a 2002 Washington Post article titled “When It Comes to Ethics, B-Schools Get an F” by Amitai Etzioni of George Washington University. Etzioni based his criticism on his own experience and on an Aspen Institute study of 2,000 graduates of the top business schools.

“B-school education not only fails to improve the moral character of the students; it actually weakens it,” he wrote. For more, see my Website article, “How Business Schools Teach Enron Ethics.”

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pioneering worker rights as human rights

Yes, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights treats the basic rights of workers as human rights, but who takes that seriously? Roy J. Adams, a prominent Canadian teacher and author, does. And he did so long before even human rights organizations did.

In August Adams will pull up stakes from his home base at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and move 1,400 miles west to the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. There, at the College of Law, he will hold the Ariel F. Sallows chair of human rights -- a milestone in academic history, since he is apparently the first teacher of labor law to be appointed to teach human rights law.

“One more indication that labor rights are being acknowledged as human rights,” as Adams puts it.

Another sign of that trend is his book, “Labour Left Out: Canada’s failure to protect and promote collective bargaining as a human right,” published by the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives two years ago. A past president of the Canadian Industrial Relations Association, Adams has been a visiting professor or lecturer at universities and schools in 12 countries across the globe.

For more on Adams’ career as industrial relations teacher and human rights advocate, check his home page at

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Friday, March 06, 2009

Parliament probing business and human rights

A joint committee of the British Parliament today issued a “call for evidence” on how corporations have complied with their responsibility to respect human rights.

The inquiry covers “the way in which businesses can affect human rights both positively and negatively, how business activities engage the relative responsibilities of the UK Government and individual businesses; and whether the existing UK regulatory, legal and voluntary framework provides adequate guidance and clarity to business as well as adequate protection to individual rights.”

Not just corporations but also “interested persons and bodies are invited to submit written evidence” of not more than 2,500 words by May 1, 2009.

The two-page long decision issued by the Parliamentary committee on human rights lists a page of questions that the committee “would particularly welcome evidence.” For this list, the committee uses the framework on human rights and business adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2008.

The committee is requesting views for making its own proposals for possible legislation and for the on-going work of the UN special representative on human rights, John Ruggie. The Bush administration opposed this UN program, which has been ignored by the U.S. media.

For background, see my reports under the category of John Ruggie. Also my new book, Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers, has a long chapter on Ruggie’s work titled “Business and Human Rights.”

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Banned from Barbie's birthday celebrations

It will be hard to miss the fabulous 50th birthday celebrations of a fabulous doll, Barbie. Guess who will be forgotten during all that hoopla? The very people who make Barbie and have been making her for 50 years.

One person who noticed that omission is Marie-Claude Hessler, a retired lawyer in Paris who is a Mattel shareholder. On March 5 she wrote an open letter to Robert Eckert, chairman and CEO of Mattel. I quote it in full here.

Mr Chairman and Chief Executive Officer,

Barbie is turning 50 on March 9th.

Impossible to miss the event with so many parades, fashion shows, special events, broadcasts and articles. Nothing is too beautiful nor too luxurious to celebrate Barbie's birthday : the best fashion designers dressed Barbie for the New York fashion show, Louboutin made her shoes, a big Barbie shop is opening in one of Shanghai's most prestigious avenues, there are British pink chocolates and Monaco's stamps representing Barbie. In Paris alone, there will be special events at the Galeries Lafayette; a Barbie week in the exclusive fashionable shop Colette with a Lagerfeld exhibit and the sale of the collectibles created by Jeremy Scott and of other various Barbie's objects; the doll museum will show 500 Barbies. And there is an Angela Merkel Barbie... and a luxurious pink Barbie Fiat 500 will parade through Milan on March 9th...

A true success in public relations – even if it does not make the product any younger.

But who has been left out of the parties? Among the flood of words and images nothing at all about the tens of thousand people who manufacture Barbie, her numerous accessories and licensed products. Yet without them, no Barbie and no party.

Why have they been left out? Because they have nothing to celebrate.

For twelve years, I have been watching closely the working conditions in Mattel's own factories as well as in Mattel's subcontractors' and licensees' factories : Mattel's track report is poor. Despite the adoption of a code of conduct in 1997, despite multiple independent audits, working conditions remain unacceptable : low wages, daily working hours of 12 if not more, weeks on end without a day off, noisy factory floors, too hot or too cold depending on the season, terrible smell of solvents due to insufficient ventilation... To make it short, conditions unworthy of Mattel... and Barbie.

Mr Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, I am asking you: will everybody be included in the celebrations? What will you do for the workers who have been left out of Barbie's birthday parties?

Yours sincerely,

Marie-Claude Hessler
Mattel shareholder

Mattel is not alone in its forgetfulness. Far, far from it. The whole global system of trade and investment is guilty of it.

I expect that Mattel’s CEO will have an answer. When will the World Trade Organization come up with its answer?

A final thought: imagine how much fairer globalization would be if a few more shareholders were as conscientious and diligent as Marie-Claude Hessler.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Holes In President's Trade Agenda

After reading the government’s new report, “The President’s Trade Agenda: Making Trade Work for American Families,” I asked myself: will President Obama be willing to go all-out to pass the Employee Free Choice Act? My hunch was that he won't be.

I may turn out to be wrong (I hope I am) , but the thrust of his trade policy statement suggests otherwise. Yes, it may seem strange to link domestic labor legislation to foreign trade issues, but there are many connections. Let me describe a few of them.

My overall impression of this agenda, prepared when most of Obama’s trade people were not yet on board, is that it is weak on worker rights. It makes no mention of the key worker right, the right to unionize. If the report truly reflects the President’s position, it seems to follow that President Obama will also be weak on restoring the American worker’s right to unionize.

The agenda is very strong on continuing U.S. support for a “rules-based system of global trade,” with the World Trade Organization institutionally at the top.. But it says nothing about a huge hole in the WTO’s rules. Those rules are now one-sided. They protect the rights of business people and their organizations in thousands of pages, but contain not one single page protecting the rights of labor and its organizations.

The agenda praises Congress for making progress in upgrading adjustment assistance to workers made jobless by globalization. But trade adjustment assistance, a favorite prescription of Larry Summers, is a palliative and no substitute for reorienting trade to make the international labor market less of a jungle that it now is for many millions of working men, women, and children.

The agenda promises to “build on the successful examples of labor provisions in some of our existing [bilateral, non-WTO] agreements.” But it leaves the successes unnamed. Under sunlight, not one of the labor provisions in existing agreements qualifies as amodel to emulated.

The agenda is eloquent in expressing the benefits of foreign trade, but says nothing about how it is built on a huge global production system where sweatshops flourish. Nor is there any recognition of the shameful role that American multinationals like Nike and Wal-Mart play in that system.

Apart from what this report says and doesn’t state, however, the crucial test for the Obama administration is in whether it will sign a pending free trade agreement with Colombia, the world’s deadliest place for unionists. For this holdover from Bush negotiators, the administration plans to “establish benchmarks for progress” that would clean it up it for Obama’s signature.

Benchmarks? What kind of benchmarks? A reduction of the union assassination rate to 50 or 60 percent?

Compromises are normal in foreign trade policy. The pressures from trade enthusiasts and business lobbyists are incredibly powerful. But at some point there comes a decision on an issue so noxious that you must have the guts to say NO. The Colombia FTA is that point.

In domestic policy, too, compromises are normal. Organized business, grown fat under the viciously anti-union policies of the Bush administration, is waging the campaign of campaigns to bury the Employee Free Choice Act, with mounds of cash to gain gravediggers in the Senate

President Obama will have to invest a large amount of his own political capital to persuade the Senate to restore freedom of association to American workers. Will he? Hoping won’t make it so.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

‘Card check’ for unionizing gets scholarly OK

A group of Catholic scholars “committed to Catholic social teaching concerning the human rights of workers to organize employee unions” is pressing for the adoption of the Employee Free Choice Act.

“Badly broken” is how the group calls “the present legal and moral framework” that is supposed to safeguard freedom of association for American workers. In a statement that invites others to sign, the Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice praises the Employee Free Choice act as “rooted in and supported by Catholic Social Teaching.”

The statement summarizes three features of the proposed legislation, which is being reintroduced in the Congress after being adopted in the House and getting bogged down in the Senate last year:

1. Recognizing the right of workers to form a union through filing signed cards (known as “card check”) that state their decision to form a union.
2. Mandating mediation and arbitration if a first contract cannot be negotiate within the fist 90 days.
3. Imposing stronger penalties on firms that violate worker rights.

“Workers can also choose a secret ballot election if that is their choice,” the statement ads.

A longer expression of support for worker rights is contained in a policy paper adopted when the Catholic Scholars group was founded in mid-2008.

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Shelve worker rights because of crisis? No!

“Right now everyone wants to maintain jobs, even if they are sweatshop jobs (China). I think it is exactly why many union people will tell you it is not the time to push on labor standards...The economic logic is against [your] perspective.”

That message was in an email criticizing something I wrote. The email reflects a tempting notion that may be spreading: forget the pro-worker agenda for the sake of the anti-recession agenda. But the temptation is based on a fallacy: that the two agendas are necessarily in conflict.

I started to write a strong rebuttal, but soon realized that there was no need to do so. Why should I, when much wiser heads have already rejected that position? They did so in a letter timed for President Barrack Obama’s official meeting on February 19 with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Canada.

The letter, dated February 18 and addressed to the top leaders of the two countries, was signed by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and President Kenneth Georgetti of the Canadian Congress of Labor (CLC), who together represent 12,200,000 union members.

Their five-page letter detailed the ways in which Canada and the United States need to work together on the economic crisis and on advancing worker rights. They discussed those two major areas under two headings: “1. Coordinated Response to Current Economic Crisis” and “2. NAFTA Renegotiation.”

The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) sparked by far the most interest. Media accounts suggested that Obama’s concerns center on moving the “side” (separate) agreements on labor and the environment into the main body of NAFTA. Whatever the administration’s closely held position may be, the AFL-CIO and CLC position is not limited to what the existing labor and environment agreements cover.

“Substantive amendments” are required in otherimportant areas, Sweeney and Georgetti state. For example, NAFTA’s investment section is flawed by, among other things providing investments “unwarranted and excessive protections.” Other “central concerns with NAFTA” cover its provisions on energy, trade in services, and agriculture.

All in all, “a very ambitious list,” as the two labor leaders conceded. But they certainly don’t believe that the economic crisis requires sacrificing the rights of workers, whether here at home or abroad.

UPDATE: Since writing the above, I learned that the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR)has just released a long report on the President's trade policy, which I'll comment on as soon as I have a chance to read it and think about it. Meantime, check it out yourself at, and do by all means send me YOUR comments.

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