Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Tribute to Neil Kearney 1950-2009

He was less than two years into a heart-wrenching job – leader of a global union whose workers endure the worst excesses of globalization. He had already visited more than 150 garment factories and textile mills on every continent.

That was in March 1990, when I first met Neil Kearney, general secretary of the International Textile, Garment, and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF). By chance, we were then both in Bangladesh, where he had meetings with the fledgling trade unions, some affiliates of his federation, some not.

I was there researching the country’s sweatshops. He was there to eliminate them, much to the anger of the owners and managers of the country’s garment factories, even though he wasn’t trying to eliminate the shops, just the “sweat,” or grueling conditions, in them.

This month Kearney once again visited Bangladesh, for the 50th time in 20 years, some said. But he didn't complete his tight four-day schedule, which included an investigation into reports, publicized in Europe, that a large factory was in gross violation of its worker rights commitments.

Early on the morning of Thursday, November 19, the heart of tireless Neil Kearney stopped beating. He was 59 years old.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Owners Association (BGMEA), and several union leaders held a Thursday press conference at the employers’ headquarters to announce Kearney’s death. Together, the BGMEA and the unions started a three-day mourning period on Friday.

“We lost a great friend of Bangladesh who fought for the welfare of the core segment of our country,” Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, the BGMEA’s acting president, said.

In Brussels, the shocked headquarters staff of the ITGLWF announced that the Federation’s congress will, as scheduled, hold its world congress in Frankfurt, Germany, on December 2-4. The planned theme, “Unionize = Decent Work = Decent Life,” will be supplemented by a celebration of how much Neil Kearney’s life has contributed to decent work and to the decent life of workers throughout the world.
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My book, “Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers,” mentions Neil Kearney at points in four different chapters, but of course that falls far short of telling the full story. His action-packed life has story material for a dramatic movie, even if, or especially if, it focused on Bangladesh alone.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A shameful embrace of sweatshops in a book on oppression of women

In their new best-selling book, “Half the Sky,” two New York Times writers, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, make an eloquent appeal for ending the worldwide oppression of women. Unfortunately, they mar their case by arguing that sweatshops are actually good for women.

“Sweatshops have given women a boost,” they write. They acknowledge “inequities of garment factories – and they are real – the forced overtime, the sexual harassment, the dangerous conditions.” But, they argue, sweatshop jobs are preferable to hoeing fields all day back in the home village.

In most of their book, Kristof and WuDunn recount shocking examples of how women in many countries suffer as 21st century slaves. Still, some women do not remain passive. They stand up and fight against the prevailing culture of oppression and, against all odds, make progress, often with outside help from non-governmental organizations (and sometimes from Kristof personally).

Yet “Half the Sky” fails to recognize the many courageous initiatives of factory workers in Indonesia and some other countries to improve their lot. In fighting against extreme abuses, these young women, too, welcome all thw support they can get from anti-sweatshop groups in the United States and Europe, whose citizens buy the T-shirts, dolls, and other consumer goods the women make.

In a long endnote, the co-authors point out that “a feminist critique…has emerged to dispute our arguments,” a critique that “contains an element of truth.” For this very limited insight into reality, Kristof and Dubunn rely completely on feminist sources, as the endnote makes clear. Too bad that they didn't interview a few sweatshop workers. If they had done so, their insights might have been substantially less limited.

In the latest of his periodic efforts to discredit the anti-sweatshop cause, Kristof goes so far to recycle a 15-year-old rumor saying:

-- that after Senator Tom Harkin in 1993 introduced a bill (never passed) to ban the import of goods made by girls and boys under 14, Bangladesh garment owners “promptly fired tens of thousands of these young girls,' and
-- that “many of them ended up in brothels and are presumably now dead of AIDS.”

This story pops up regularly in articles opposing the use of trade legislation to improve labor standards (the point about the children dying of AIDS is a new wrinkle). I personally know two researchers, one a Bangladeshi, who have devoted extensive efforts to verify this old story but have discovered no evidence to support it.

“Half of the Sky” offers this recommendation: “Instead of denouncing sweetshops, we in the West should be encouraging manufacturing in poor country.” The implied assumption -- that the anti-sweatshop movement discourages manufacturing in poor countries – is false.

Here’s one example, reported at length by Steven Greenhouse in the November 18 New York Times.

Soon after workers in a Honduras factory unionized, Russell Athletic, one of the country’s leading sportswear companies, closed the plants, making 1,200 workers jobless. That was a flagrant violation of the company’s licensing agreements.

Gearing up quickly, the United Students against Sweatshop launched a nationwide campaign in which, among other things, more than 100 colleges and universities agreed to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. Finally, over the September 14-15 weekend, Worker Rights Consortium, a USAS sister organization, signed a landmark agreement with Russell under which Russell will

-- reopen the Honduras factory with 1,200 rehired workers.
-- open another plant in Honduras to be covered by a union contract.

Moises Alvarado, president of the union at the closed plant, told the New York Times: “For us, it was very important to receive the support of the universities. We are impressed by the social conscience of the students of the United States.”

As its epigraph, “Half the Sky” uses the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” Ignoring the world’s oppressed female garment workers from a large fraction of that half is a blunder and a scandal.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Justice at Work: too optimistic?

Professor David Cingranelli, professor of political science at Binghamton University, got an “error’ report when he tried to leave a comment on my November 14 blog. He did finally get through by regular email with the following critique.
I’ve been thinking more generally about your arguments in your excellent new book, “Justice at Work: Globalization and the Human Rights of Workers.” I love the book, but I think you are way too optimistic about the potential of Corporate Social Responsibility, anti-sweatshop movements, personal boycotts, and fair traded goods movements as ways to deal with the most negative effects of globalization on workers.

I also think national policies like the [proposed] prohibition on spending taxpayer dollars for goods made by forced child labor make Americans feel good, but are similarly ineffective. There are few incentives for US politicians to enforce the provisions of laws such as these, and, more importantly, if the unethical producers of such goods don’t sell them here, they will sell them somewhere else.

Only international norms promulgated by the United Nations through the ILO and enforced by the World Bank and IMF can effectively solve these problems. IMF and World Bank leaders resist this idea. But, unlike the WTO, both of these institutions are Specialized Agencies of the United Nations, and the United Nations’ twin missions, according to its own charter, are to promote peace and human rights. No UN entity can say that the promotion of human rights is not part of its own mission. In your blog you have reported on some small steps taken by the World Bank towards this end, but much more remains to be done.

Current policies of the IMF and World Bank are actually leading to reduced government respect for a wide range of human rights around the world. This fact is well documented in my recent book with Rodwan Abouharb, Human Rights and Structural Adjustment (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Chapter 9 presents the results of a global, comparative study showing that, other things being equal, the longer a developing country has been under structural adjustment programs, the worse its respect for workers’ rights including freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Thank you for providing so much good information about the effects of globalization on the most vulnerable of the world’s workers. While I disagree with some of your opinions, your voice has helped me refine my own thoughts about this important subject.

-- David Cingranelli, professor of political science, Binghamton University.

(An undergraduate class of his had a two-week, six-hour discussion of Justice of Work.)

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Glaring contradictions in corporate social responsibility movement

Global corporations based in Europe are almost twice more likely than those based in the United States to have labor and human rights policies covering their global supply chains. But that doesn’t mean that the Europeans do better than their American counterparts in implementing their corporate social responsibilities.

The U.S.-Europe statistical discrepancy is revealed in a study released November 11 by the IRRC Institute: 43 percent of European companies have labor/human rights policies for their worldwide operations, whereas only 23 percent of American multinationals do. Moreover, those European corporate polices are more likely that the Americans’ to describe monitoring procedures, targets for improvement, and enforcement mechanisms.

At a conference on corporate social responsibility held in Stockholm on November 11, an international trade union leader, Jim Baker, gave concrete examples of glaring internal contradictions in the CSR movement. He cited this experience in particular:

“We have spoken with some European companies with interests in the U.S. who say they are committed to human rights, including a couple here in Sweden. We have asked them to disassociate themselves from the anti-union propaganda being used against modest legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, to correct some of the abuses in U.S. labor law.

“Although they say they are shocked by what is being said and done, not one has yet distanced itself from that anti-human rights corporate campaign.”
Baker also described contradictatory behavior in the country of Georgia. There the government and trade unions, working with the most representative employers’ organization, proposed pro-worker reforms in the labor code.

“Who is now blocking the reforms? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Georgia,” Baker said, adding that one of that chamber’s large patrons is a firm that, some years ago, made a lot of money doing CSR audits.

Baker, coordinator of the Council of Global Unions, was a speaker at a conference of the Swedish Presidency of the European Union, where John G. Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, made the keynote presentation.

The Swedish Presidency formally renewed its support for Ruggie’s “Protect, Respect, Remedy” framework that the UN Human Right Council unanimously approved in June 2008. (For background, see my June 4, 2008. blog report on “This UN Work Seems Back on Track.)

“The Protect, Respect, Remedy framework gives us a path out of the make-believe world of CSR,” Baker said in his remarks. He went on to explain:

“The Ruggie framework makes it clear that business responsibility includes the respect of laws and international standards related to human rights….[It] is a good way to make sure that rights are respected in supply chains, in small and medium-sized enterprises and by competitors.”

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Saturday, November 14, 2009

No to spending taxpayer dollars for goods made by forced child labor

The U.S. government is taking steps to prevent federal agencies from buying goods made by forced or indentured child labor. The policy, if put into effect and enforced, would ban federal procurement of hand-made bricks, cotton, electronics, and toys made by abusive child labor in China, among other countries and other products.

At present, there are “gaping holes in federal procurement policy,” says Bjorn Claeson, executive director of SweatFree Communities. As a result, the U.S. government can now “purchase products made outside the United States in the most egregious sweatshop conditions.”

21 Countries on New List; Only One on Old

An “initial determination” by the Department of Labor on September 10 concluded that 29 products of 21 countries were made by forced or indentured child labor. The products of Burma are the most numerous to make the list – seven in all, ranging from beans (green, soy, and yellow) to teak.

The Labor Department’s action, taken in conjunction with the State and Homeland Security Departments, updates the 2001 list that implemented an executive order issued by President Bill Clinton two years earlier. Burma was the only country on that 2001 list, with 11 products.

According to Labor, the updated list is “based on recent, credible, and appropriately corroborated sources.” In the case of China, the sources of two of its citations, those for forced child labor in toy and electronic manufacturing, were a New York Times investigative article, reporting by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and a report by Macro International, a research and consulting firm.

The final decision on the list will come after the 90-day public comment period, that is, after December 10. Comments can be made by email to

The 1999 Clinton executive order stands out as one of the very few governmental tools available to deter official purchases of sweatshop products. The executive order’s penalties are meager, however. Contractors are deemed in compliance simply by self-certifying that they are.

As a result, anti-sweatshop groups did not greet the September 20 Labor Department announcement with celebrations. But the human rights organizations themselves have yet to fully recognize the potential that the government procurement process has for promoting the common good.

Who will take the lead in convincing the Obama administration to strengthen the 1999 executive order 13126 on the “Prohibition of Acquisition of Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor”?

For more on this subject, see the previous (November 11) posting, "Moving to stop spending taxpayer money on sweatshop goods."
CORRECTION: The 2001 Labor Department determination listed two countries, Burma and Pakistan, not just Burma.
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Moving to stop spending taxpayer money on sweatshop goods

The Federal government, according to official policy, can and does buy supplies made in sweatshops, foreign and domestic. A grassroots movement to change that is gaining strength.

Short of the federal level, 39 cities, 15 counties, eight states, and over 100 public school districts have already adopted procurement rules to ensure that the uniforms, shoes, and other products they buy for police, fire, and other public employees are not made in sweatshops.

Laying the ground work for extending such a ban to the Federal level was a major focus of the sixth annual “Sweatfree Communities summit” held in Washington, D.C., November 6-8.

“There’s a big gap in federal procurement policies,” says Bjorn Claeson, executive director of Sweatfree Communities, the non-profit organization that unites the movement.

A potentially ground-breaking document, “Principles for International Sweatfree Federal Government Procurement,” was released at a forum held on Capitol Hill on January 6. It is a five-page working draft compiled by Claeson with contributions from the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win union alliance, the International Labor Rights Forum, and other like-minded organizations.

To help member governments meet their sweatshop-free purchasing goals, Sweatfree Communities has recently formed the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium. Still in the developing stages, it has two core functions:

-- Connect government buyers with suppliers pre-screened as sweatfree.
-- Serve as the contact and coordinating points for monitoring suppliers, investigating complaints, and achieving effective remedies.

Might any of these efforts conflict with the rules of the World Trade Organizations? Briefly, no; they are “WTO compliant,” says Claeson, whom I interviewed by phone.

Unfortunately, because of heath problems, I was unable to attend the summit. But I am impressed by what I read on two Websites and what I heard from Claeson. This is a movement whose time has come.

The two Websites,, and a separate one for the consortium,, contain a surprising wealth of information. A particularly useful one for ordinary shoppers is the 2009 Shop with a Conscience Consumer Guide, with listings for women’s wear, men’s wear, baby clothes, footwear, outerwear, T-shirts, and sports equipment.

Among the 2009 Sweatfree Summit co-sponsors not mentioned here before are these: the Catholic Relief Services, the United Methodist Church Global Ministries, and Georgetown University Law School, which hosted all the sessions except for the one on Capitol hill.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Looking at the economic world as it really is

“Real-world” economists now have a whole Weblog of their own. They have just launched it at with a series of articles that look at the economic world as it really is.

There you’ll find answers to questions mostly ignored by U.S. media. For example:

-- What country in Latin America is expected to have record economic growth this year even though it ignored the advice of the IMF and the U.S. business press?

-- Why are the investment rules in the pending U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement “dangerous, outdated, and out of touch with most of the [non-U.S.] trade agreements in the world”?

The first article is by Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research; the second, by Kevin P. Gallagher, professor of international relations at Boston University..

The new Real-World Economics Review blog replaces the Website of the same name, which is an outgrowth of the “Post-Autistic Economics” movement, the pioneer in re-thinking conventional economics.

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