Saturday, April 24, 2010

Judges and their role in human rights violations by global firms

Governments need to improve the access that the judiciary gives to victims of corporate-related human rights abuses in the global economy. That was a key message of a new report by John Ruggie, UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights.

Ruggie has a mandate to “operationalize” the human rights principles for business approved unanimously by the UN Human Rights Council two years ago. In the 126 paragraphs of his latest report, dated April 9, the 10 paragraphs devoted to “Judicial Mechanisms” for access to remedies are one of the two longest sections.

Essential to improving access to judicial remedy, Ruggie emphasizes, is that “both States and companies act in a manner supportive of the independence and integrity of judicial systems.

Three practical obstacles can “make it almost impossible for victims to access” even an effective judiciary:

-- Costs of legal advice and of the case itself should the claimant prove unsuccessful.
-- Limitations on “standing” (on who can bring a suit) and on the ability to bring group claims for compensation. Many instances of corporate-related harm involve a large number of indiidual claims that are grounded on the same underlying set of facts, each of which are too costly for a single claimant to pursue.
-- Disincentives – financial, social, and political – for lawyers to represent claimants in this area.
In the paragraph that concludes this section, Ruggie writes: “Governments often point to the mere existence of judicial systems as proof that they are fulfilling their duty to protect. But, as the above discussion demonstrates, much more is needed.”

Then, in summing up all the types of “mechanisms” – State-based, judicial and non-judicial, company-based, as well as collaborative and international -- for obtaining remedies, Ruggie points out:

“Reality falls far short of constituting a comprehensive and inclusive system of remedy for victims of corporate-related human rights abuse.”

Read the full report at Read more!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Judaism’s stand on wage theft and all oppression of workers

In a statement issued by the Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, a New York rabbi, Michael Feinberg, condemned unethical employment practices that have become “epidemic in scope” – wage theft, including pay below the legal minimum wage, misclassifying workers as independent contractors so as to deny them benefits, failure to pay overtime, or failure to pay anything at all.

From his own experience as executive director of the New York Labor-Religion Coalition, Rabbi Feinberg found that the victims of wage theft in its various forms were garment workers, city park workers, janitors, greengrocery workers, cemetery workers, farm workers, doormen, delivery people, “to name a few.”

“These workers need and deserve all the support they can get from the religious community and from the law in pursuit of justice,” he wrote.

In support of his position, Rabbi Feinberg cited some of Judaism’s most important principles. Among them:

• The Dignity of all Creation -- K'vod Habriot
• The role of humanity to be responsible stewards to the Earth and all its resources, shared equitably
• The ultimate value and worth of every human being, each one created in the image of God -- B'tselem Elohim
• The dignity of labor/work as human partnership with God in the ongoing act of Creation
• The right of all workers to fair treatment, including a living wage, timely payment, and the right to form a union
• Concern for the most economically vulnerable in society -- the widow, the orphan and the stranger -- and the ethical imperative to meet their need
For Rabbi Feinberg’s full statement, click on

Interfaith Worker Justice, under Kim Bobo, has for years run effective national and local campaigns to stimulate action against wage thievery. She is the author of “Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid-And What We Can Do About It “(2009). Read more!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Identifying that 800 pound gorilla in U.S. trade with China

Why have American companies shifted most of their production for the American market to China? And why do they continue to do so?

The overriding reason is the huge advantage they gain from China’s absolute control of Chinese workers, not from China’s rigid control of its currency. That truth is worth revisiting in light to the exaggerated hope being placed in the benefits that the U.S. would gain if Beijing abandoned its currency manipulation.

The issue came to the fore on business pages last month because the Obama administration decided to postpone the scheduled April 15 announcement to declare the People’s Republic a currency manipulator. In a teleconferenced briefing for some 65 activists, the Citizens Trade Campaign labeled China’s exchange rate policy as “the 800-pound dragon in the room.”

“Currency manipulation is just one of Chinese governments many unfair trade advantages, but it also the largest one,” the Citizens Trade Campaign (CTC) said in summarizing the teleconference.

In acknowledging the unfair advantage (and attractions for foreign companies) in China’s labor market, one CTC briefer mentioned China’s low wages and its government’s labor federation as causes.

That understates the plight of China’s working men and women. The iron fist of the country’s neo-Communist rule deprives them of all rights and makes them vulnerable to a wide range of exploitation, individually and collectively. Ironically, they are deprived of freedoms enjoyed by American business people in China.

It is an arrangement so obviously discriminatory, so immoral, that it should not survive one day longer. However, American business, to its eternal shame, will try to hold on it as long as possible, given the support of the U.S. government through its unfree trade and other policies.

Even some insiders now understand the folly of these policies. Robert B. Cassidy, a former Assistant Trade Representative, recently wrote:

“I now understand why so many of the trade agreements we negotiated never delivered the promises that were made and, if continued, never will.”
Cassidy wrote that as a blurb for a new book by Ian Fletcher, “Free Trade Doesn’t Work: What Should Replace It and Why.” See an article by Fletcher in Truthout titled “Uncle Sam, Global Trade Sucker.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Tiger Woods' complicity with Nike

After reading my article on the anti-sweatshop victory against Nike at the Unversty of Wisconsin (see posting below), a friend, Harry Kamberis, writes: “Never owned any Nike products and never will. What does [his endorsement of Nike] say about Tiger Woods?”

Good question. It is amazing how Tiger Woods has been shamed for his “private” life but has escapes opprobrium for his endorsement of Nike and his lucrative complicity with Nike in exploiting millions of men and women in sweatshops.

Woods seems insensitive to everything except golf and the millions it brings in endorsements. A total cad in private life but also in public life.

Another friend, Dan Turnquist, warns against a hasty proclamation of victory against Nike’s policies. He reminds that Nike can and does play “hardball with [universities] in terms of all the support it gives the athletic programs, free uniforms and all that. Not to mention buying off the coaches with lavish payments for endorsements. Nike does not give up easily.”

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

A tipping point in long struggle against Nike and its policies?

After a worker rights activist, Jeff Ballinger, started targeting Nike in 1992 for its anti-labor policies, a prominent union leader advised him to forget it: Nike was just too big to expect to make a dent in it. That negative view long seemed accurate, but student leaders by the hundreds, some encouraged by Jeff himself and his publication, “Press for Change,” refused to believe it.

On April 9 the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that it is severing its ties with Nike – the first to do so in a national campaign coordinated by the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). That followed a significant breakthrough in which two Dominican Republic factories have started making sweat-free products for U.S. university bookstores (see the April 8 issue of Human Rights for Workers).

Could this be the tipping in a campaign long deemed hopeless?

The Wisconsin university’s decision came after its monitoring agent, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), found and publicized grievous violations of the university’s code of conduct by two of Nike supplier factories in Honduras, including a refusal to pay $2,200,000 in benefits and severance pay.

“It’s a major victory national,” Jonah Zinn, 19, a sophomore at Wisconsin, who was part of a student campaign urging the contract cancellation, as the university’s own Labor Licensing Policy Committee had recommended.

Not stopping there, USAS and its affiliates nation-wide are in the midst of a multi-campus “NIKE: Pay for It” tour. It includes a demonstration Sunday, April 12, at Niketown, off Central Park in New York City. Speakers include Rod Palmquist, USAS national organizer, and two former workers at the Honduras factories.

What can you do?

For one thing, check the USAS Website at for news, background, and action ideas.

In my view, the Nike Swoosh is a symbol of shame. I’d suggest, at the minimum, removing it from anything you might own.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

Different anti-sweatshop strategy wins breakthrough

A factory in the Dominican Republic has begun production on sweatfree goods for delivery to university bookstores starting this fall or earlier. It is a breakthrough for a new strategy pioneered by the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) and its partner, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC).

Under an arrangement that took two years of dialogue, Knights Apparel, one of the largest vendors of apparel bearing university logos, and the DR factory management have committed to pay workers a living wage, as defined by a study conducted by the WRC. Knights will pay its supplier factory a price designed to make this possible.

Both Knights and the factory management have also made a commitment to respect the right of workers to organize and to recognize any union chosen by the workers. The WRC will be responsible for verifying these and other standards.

A noted health and safety expert, Garret Brown, and a colleague have already made an inspection of the factory, and will work on health and safety issues in cooperation with worker representatives in the factory.

To meet expected demand for no-sweat goods, Knights has launched a new brand, Alta Garcia, which for now will be sold only to campus stores, beginning with those that have already declared their intention to carry the product.

Says Scott Nova, WRC director: “It is a pilot project, not a comprehensive solution, to the challenges we face, but it is an exciting step forward.”

The project puts into practice key elements of the WRC’s innovative Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). Its aim is to enhance the enforcement of university codes of conduct, which as stand-alone documents have proveen pretty much useless without the institutional and incentive framework to make them effective.

The WRC is a Washington- based research and investigative non-governmental group funded by more than 170 U.S. colleges and universities. Its 15-member governing board comprises five persons from each of the three WRC constituencies – the universities, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), and independent labor rights experts comprising the WRC advisory council.

Illustrating the universities’ basic interest in the endeavor is the desire not to have their names smirched by complicity with sweatshops. Duke University’s “trademark licensing policy” affirms “a policy of protecting the symbols that are associated with its name and reputation as one of the finest universities in the country.”

Once resistant to any such policy, Duke in the spring of 1998 adopted one of the first comprehensive codes of conduct against sweatshops. Months later its officials joined Duke Students Against Sweatshops in signing an agreement committing the school to seek disclosure of all licensing factory locations, and it later had contracts with 409 licensees renegotiated to require such disclosure.

In the fiercely competitive global marketplace, however, this approach made little impact.

Duke’s director of trademark licensing, Jim Wilkerson, supported the founding of WRC in 2001, and went on to become a key officer of its board and of its 36-member DSP working group. It took an arduous decade of discussion, planning, negotiating, getting legal advice, writing and rewriting DSP – plus the pressure of USAS chapters on hesitant universities – for the WRC to come this far.

It still has a long way to go, as a phone conversation with Wilkerson, a fan of this blog, made me realize.

For a report by the Maquiladora Health & Safety Network, see “Network Assists Start-up of Real ‘no sweat’ garment factory.”

Note: The WRC is a joint initiative aimed at the procurement policies of universities. A parallel movement, the SweatFree Consortiium, is a joint initiative aimed at the procurement policies of governments, local, state, and national. See my December 14, 2009, posting on SweatFree Communities and the Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

U.S. cities establish plague-like record in population loss

A pandemic of destruction has struck a “nation within a nation -- the entire Great Lakes Nation,” says Hunter Morrison, director of Youngstown State University’s Office of Planning and Partnership.

Dozens of American cities in that area – places like Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, Warren, and Buffalo -- have lost half of their populations over the course of one generation. This is the first time that so many cities have lost so many people in such a short time since the Plague struck Europe in 1348, according to Morrison’s study of the health of global cities over the century.

America is more interested in building Baghdad and Kabul than it is in assuring the vitality of its own cities, writes Richard A. McCormick in a Manufacturing & Technology News article on Morrison’s study.

Morrison, former director of the Cleveland City planning department for 20 years, looked for trends worldwide in which a large number of cities have fallen into disrepair, including:

-- Great Britain, when deindustrialization struck places like Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Belfast.

-- Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, leading to expectations that millions of people would abandon dilapidated Eastern European cities.
None of these areas experienced the U.S passivity toward devastation in the U.S. Midwest, McCormack writes. “Other countries understood how vital it was for their cities to remain healthy. They committed themselves and the resources required to keep their old cities vibrant. No such attitude prevailed in the United States.”

What needs to be done to turn the situation around?

“A way to address a problem is to recognize that you have one," says Morrison. "It's not Cleveland's problem or Elyria's problem. It's not saving Cleveland. It's the way we operate as a nation -- a nation of places. What has been brought to the table is that deindustrialization is something that is good because it is cleaner. But it is nothing of the sort. It is a diminution of wealth creation.

“If deindustrialization was such a good thing, then why is China industrializing? The reason you do manufacturing is to create wealth by adding value. It's real simple. We've gone away from that."

In another article in the same issue, a California industrialist worries that it may not be long before Silicon Valley resembles the once-thriving area of the Shenango River Valley in deindustrialized western Pennsylvania.

American failure to deal with the obsolescence of its major inner cities creates many cruelties. One is to blame the unhappy results on the blacks and other minorities left behind.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Battling Floating Sweatshops

Left stranded in the Philippines since their ship ran aground on New Year’s Day, 22 North Koreans finally started their way home on March 19, thanks to the intervention of the International Transportworkers Federation (ITF). The rescue was part of a day’s work for the ITF, a global union which represents 4,500,000 transport workers in 148 countries, with its own inspectors in the ports of 48 countries.

It was the ITF port inspector in Manila, Rodrigo Aguinaldo, who took the key role in solving the complicated case of the 22 North Koreans. North Korea has no Embassy or consulate in the Philippines. Among other things, he found food and lodging for the crew, and most of all handled negotiations with the Chinese Embassy to release their passports and allow them to fly home via China.

The ITF came to the crew’s aid even though North Korea’s maritime flag is a “flag of convenience” that allows ships’ owners to evade the national laws, taxes, and unionization of their home countries. The ITF and its seafarers and dock workers sections have long fought this dodge as a floating form of sweatshops.

Even so, at latest count, 40 percent of the world’s big merchant vessels flew flags different from their home countries. In fact, the custom is so deep-seated in maritime culture that the world’s top five shipowning countries (Japan, Germany, the United States, Greece, and China) have “flagged out” their maritime fleets to countries like Vamuatu. Belize, and Cyprus.

Instead of just battling improper flags, the ITF adopted a strategy of also battling the sweatshops that millions of seafarers must endure. As a result, of the remaining FOC vessels in the world, 48 percent have signed an ITF-approved agreement that guarantees seafarers minimal standards of pay and working conditions. ITF inspectors inspect ships visiting their port city, and in cooperation with local authorities, “arrest” a vessel until its sweatshop conditions are corrected.

Last year seafarers collected nearly $40,000,000 in back wages and underpayments, thanks to the ITF, whose inspectors visited 9,562 vessels, most of them flying flags of convenience.

The ITF scored a new breakthrough in 2006, when the UN International Labor Conference adopted the Maritime Labor Convention, which among other things requires large ships operating in international waters to have a maritime labor certificate reinforcing the rights of seafarers. Uniquely among ILO conventions, this one, when ratified, will apply to all states, even those that do not ratify it.

So far, eight states, not yet including the United States, have ratified the convention, with 22 more needed for the convention to go into force.

For more information, see the current issue of The ITF Seafarers Bulletin at

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