Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Emergency care needed for U.S.’ sick trade deficit with China

How much more time will pass before the Obama administration takes action on our toxic trade with the People’s Republic of China?

As a result of our burgeoning trade deficit with China since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization:

-- About 2,400,000 jobs have been lost or displaced in the United States.
-- The computer, electronic equipment, and parts industries led, with 627,000 jobs displaced, more than in any other sector of the economy.
-- Every Congressional district, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, has been affected, with California and Texas as the biggest losers among states.
Those are among the facts documented in a new report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) issued March 23 in conjunction with the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM).

The impact of the China trade deficit – which reached a record high of $270,000,000 in 2008 – is not limited to the hemorrhaging of jobs. Workers still employed are affected too, by decreased wages. A typical full-time, median wage earner lost an estimated $1,400 in 2006.

Currency manipulation is a major cause of the huge trade surplus enjoyed by China, according to the report’s author, Robert E. Scott of EPI. This intervention “makes the yuan artificially cheap and provides an effective subsidy on Chinese exports.”

As a result, China’s goods cost up to 40 percent less, according to the AAM, which brings together a select group of America’s leading manufacturers and the United Steelworkers.

The AAM supports the newly introduced Senate legislation designed to halt the misalignment of currencies by China and other countries. The group also urges the U.S. Treasury Department to list China as a currency manipulator in its semi-annual report on currency exchange, due by April 15.

Extensive background information can be found on the AAM Website at

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Joining forces against sweatshops

After more than a decade of campaigns, why haven’t anti-sweatshop organizations made much more progress? When I put that a question to a friend who is a veteran of those campaigns, he replied: “Because the movement is Balkanized.”

In that light, a March 10 public letter of two anti-sweatshop organizations, the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and the Sweatfree Communities (SFC) is especially good news. Barma Arthrea, ILRF executive director, and Bjorn Claeson, SFC director, wrote that they are “pleased to announce that SFC and ILR will be joining forces in a new collaboration that we hope will stengthen our advocacy efforts to create a sweatfree world.”

Among the benefits expected from working together:

• Expansion of “our work to encourage federal, local, and state government entities to use their purchasing power to promote and enforce strong labor rights standards.”
• “Strengthen our efforts to build a grassroots international labor solidarity movement in the U.S.”
The two groups have already been working together informally, especially in the past year. Now they are doings so more actively “during a one-year transition period followed by an evaluation at which time a final decision will be made on whether to fully merge into one organization.”

Sweatfree Communities, headquarterd in Bangor, Maine, was founded in 2003 by anti-sweatshop activists, including local labor leaders, in Maine, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. Their working together since then has led 39 cities, 15 counties, and eight states to adopt “sweat-free” procurement policies, starting with uniforms for police officers, firefighters, and others, including prisoners.

The International Labor Rights Forum, headquartered in Washington, was founded in1986 by leaders in human rights, labor, academic, and faith-based organizations, to promote global labor standards, especially through trade and aid policies. (Personal disclosure: I’ve been a member of ILRF since the ealy 1990s.)

Both organizations have excellent Websites that inform members and the public on developments affecting the human rights of working men and women.

For a copy of 2010 Shopping with a Conscience Guide, see

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

Businness, human rights, and due diligence

You’re an employer, and want to avoid any unnecessary risks in your global production business. You certainly don’t want to become liable for failing to exercise due diligence in your human rights practices.

But what is due diligence?

An authoritative answer to that question has come from John Ruggie, the UN Secretary General’s special representative on human rights and business. Ruggie gave the keynote address to a conference sponsored on February 25 in Atlanta by the U.S. Council for International Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the International Organization of Employers.

Ruggie identifies four components of human rights due diligence for companies:

1. A statement of policy articulating the company’s commitment to respect human rights;
2. Periodic assessments of actual and potential human rights impacts of company activities and relationships;
3. Integrating those commitments and assessments into internal control and oversight systems; and
4. Tracking as well as reporting performance.

The process “has to go beyond simply identifying and managing material risks to the company itself, to include the risks a company’s activities and associated relationships may pose to the rights of affected individuals and companies,” Ruggie points out, adding:

“In a world of 80,000 multinationals, ten times as many subsidiaries, and countless national firms,…[the process] necessarily will vary with circumstances.”

Ruggie offers several reasons why following a meaningful process of due diligence is well worth the effort it requires. One advantage is that it offers a corporate board “strong protection against mismanagement claims by shareholders, [which in the context of lawsuits]…can only count in its favor.”

In carrying out his mandate from the UN Human Rights Council, Ruggie will in the coming months be working with a number of organizations, including:

• The OECD as it updates its "Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises."
• The International Finance Corporation as it revises its Performance Standards.
• The European Commission, as it explores new approaches to ensuring responsible behavior overseas by European firms.

For the full text of Ruggie’s address, click

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Public procurement with a conscience

Although efforts to adopt decent labor standards through free trade agreements are stymied on the international level, activists in the United States are quietly making progress on the local level. At last count, 39 cities, 15 counties, and eight states have adopted policies expressed under a common banner: No taxpayer dollars for sweatshop goods!

These policies are promoted by a nongovernmental network, Sweatfree Communities, founded in 2003 by anti-sweatshop activists who had been working separately in Maine, Minnesota, New York, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. They now work together with a three-prong strategy:
Those are the first two paragraphs of an article of mine just published in Policy Innovations, the Carnegie Council’s on-line magazine for a fairer globalization.

For more than a decade now, I’ve studied the various levers available to advance the human rights of workers in the 21st century’s global economy. The Policy Innovations article is one result of those studies. As I say in the closing paragraph;

“New trade legislation – necessary as it is to safeguard worker rights globally – will not do the job alone. A combination of governmental and nongovernmental levers is needed. One of those key levers is public procurement with a conscience.”

For the full article, click

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How many more will have to die…?

…before the world’s business and political leaders start to rid the globe of sweatshops?

At least 21 workers died and dozens of other workers were injured on February 26 when a fire swept through a sweater factory near the capital city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. Most of the victims, at least 14 of the dead, were women.

Since the year 2000 alone, 143 garment workers, almost all women, were killed in Bangladesh’s factory fires.

How many more women will die in sweatshops, in Bangladesh and elsewhere, before a pundit like Nicholas Kristof stops writing that sweatshops are good for women?

Moreover, “why does the garment sector in Bangladesh continue to grow despite the fires and despite the abusive working conditions that nobody denies – not even the brands themselves?”

Bjorn Claeson, director of Sweatfree Communities, adds that and other pointed questions, in an article published in “Labor is Not a Commodity,” a blog jointly operated with the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups dedicated to global labor solidarity.

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