Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Inequality: how it may foment instability of many varieties

To heal the grievous rift exposed during recent violent demonstrations in Bangkok, Thailand must address the country’s social inequality, according to a leading Thai, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij.

In an interview with Tim Johnston of the Financial Times of London, Korn said: “There have been far too much focus through various governments…on short-term relief measures as opposed to measures that genuinely address the issue of equal access to opportunity in the long term.”

Although governmental efforts to create jobs through fiscal stimulus are important, “they cannot be expected to create job opportunities of the kind that people aspire to in the long term,” Korn said, adding that a widespread view among the people is that access to opportunities and resources is “not fair and transparent.”

Apparently Johnson shares that view. In an opinion column published June 28, he wrote:

“While the protesters’ main demand was the resignation of the government, that discontent was rooted in the belief that the country’s traditional aristocratic and bureaucratic elites have used their power to usurp political and economic rights by manipulating parliament and the courts.”

That discontent is not limited to Thailand. Nor are its roots.

Another columnist, Paul Krugman, a Nobel prizewinner in economics, is also exploring the societal repercussions of inequality. He does so in a paper, “Inequality and crises: coincidence or causation?” that he presented in Luxembourg to the Luxembourg Income Study, an on-going project that collects and analyzes income and expenditure data of nearly 40 countries.

As of this writing, Krugman has made available only a series of statistical data slides and a few related notes of his presentation. In his opening note, he explains:

“Pre-2008: When I would talk to lay audiences about inequality, I would mention that we were reaching levels not seen since 1929, and that would inevitably lead to questions about whether we would soon have another Depression. No, I’d say – there really isn’t a clear reason why high inequality should lead to macroeconomic crisis.

“And then…” Data captured in a series of charts follow, as well as this note, among others:

“Sharp rightward shift in politics in U.S. and to lesser extent UK circa 1980. Reflected in polarization, and also in policies, including financial deregulation. Also, strong correlation between political shifts and inequality.”

Among the economists he quotes is Robert Frank, author of “Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class.” He puts Frank among those with “Modern Ideas (on the basic issue): over-consumption (and over-indebtedness), not under-consumption,” as in this quote:

“The wealthy are spending more now simply because they have more money. But their spending has led others to spend more as well, including middle-income families. If the real incomes of middle-class families have grown only slightly, how have they financed this additional consumption? In part by working longer hours, but mainly by saving less and borrowing more.”

In his final slide, he draws two-way causal lines between politics and inequality, but he qualifies the link between inequality and fragility with a question mark.

Meanwhile, in his June 27 New York Times column, Krugman wrote: “We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression….The cost – to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs – will…be immense.”
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Friday, June 25, 2010

Very rich becoming even richer

The sizes of income gaps between the very rich and everyone else in the United States have more than tripled in the last three decades. The result is that income concentration at the very top of the income scale is greater than at any time since 1928.

So says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in a report based on new data issued by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) combined with prior research.

The authors, Arloc Sherman and Chad Stone, point out that the recession that began in December 2007 likely shank the gap between rich and poor households, but that a similar development during the 2001 recession turned out to be just a speed bump. Incomes at the top later more than made up lost ground.

The new CBO data show how middle-income Americans were affected by trends in after-tax income during the 1979 – 2007 period:

-- The share going to the top 1 percent hit its highest level (17.1 percent) while the share going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level (14.1 percent).

-- Average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation – an increase of $973,100 per household – compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth.

The CBO data, according to the CBPP report. are the most comprehensive data available on incomes and taxes for different income groups, capturing trends at the very top of the scale that the Census data miss. For example, Census income data do not include capital gains or earnings above $1,000,000. If someone makes $10,000,000 a year, the Census reports these earnings as $1,000,000.
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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Apple's i-Pad made under military discipline: Taiwanese petition

The cluster of ten suicides at the Taiwan-owned factory in Shenzhen, China, “is a bitter accusation made with 10 young lives against the inhumane, exploitative labor regime.” The responsibility for the tragedy, and for making amends, lies with four parties:

-- the owners of the factory, Hon Hai Precision Industry and its subsidiary, Foxconn Technology Inc.., which operates the Shenzhen plant.
-- the government of China, “which favors employers and fails to assure basic labor rights in China.”
-- multinational corporations, such as Apple Computer Inc., which outsoure products, such as iPad, to companies like Foxconn that “minimize their costs by transferring the price pressure onto their workers in forms of low pay, military discipline, and ruthless working conditions.”
-- the government of Taiwan, which is “an accessory to the wrongdoings of international conglomerates.”
So says a petition originated by a group of Taiwanese academicians and now signed by more than 200 colleagues, plus labor and environmental activists. Previously, in my blog posted yesterday, I referred to it as a letter, not a petition. This morning, an anonymous email sent me an English translation of the petition, http://sites.google.com/site/laborgogo2010eng/.

Its additional details and insights include:

1. “The concentration camp-styled controlling system, the means of supervision over employees, and repeated labor for more than a dozen hours a day on production lines are main reasons for physical and mental exhaustion and alienation of the workers.”

2. “The wage in Foxonn is relatively high compared to the other OEM [original equipment manufacturer] factories in Shenzhen….Pay raise is not the answer.”

3. “The representative of the [government] labor union of Foxconn, ironically, is the assistant of chairman Terry Guo” of Hon Hai.

All Taiwan-funded enterprises abroad, including Foxonn/Hon Hai, must end “military discipline in the factory as well as in the dormitory, the petition says. It also asks all others involved to initiate reforms. Among them: “a reform in the existing labor union system toward the guarantee of shop-floor worker representaton.”

Consumers are asked to boycott Apple’s new iPhone 4G “until the working conditions of its manufacturing factories are genuinely improved.”

The petition identifies two sociologists, Thung-Hong Lin of Academia Sinica and You-ren Yang of Tunghai University, as its “promoters.”
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Taiwan profs shame Taiwanese corporation for suicides in China

A Taiwan-owned multinational’s behavior in China has sparked unexpected controversy in Taiwan, thanks in part to the protests of 150 Taiwanese academicians.

The controversy, headline news on TV last Sunday, June 13, and front page headlines in most newspapers on Monday, pits the academicians and other critics against the mighty Foxconn Technology Inc., key assembler of Apple i-Phones, whose Shenzen plant suffered a series of worker suicides this year.

After a suicide in April. two young sociologists drafted a letter calling attention to the intense pressures faced by the Foxconn workers to work illegally excessive overtime, and asked the company to stop blaming the latest victims as copycats. Widely circulated in the academic community, the letter gradually gained the signatures of 150 professors of sociology, psychology, public health, gender studies, and law, among others.

The day after the letter was publicized at a press conference, the universities of the academic signers were flooded with phone calls and emails: the academics knew nothing about work and were overpaid fat cats that Taiwan can do without.

More important, the prime minister, Wul Den-Yih, called the academics unfair and politically motivated. Public sentiment generally had a nationalist reaction, as though any criticism of Foxconn and Terry Guo, president of its parent company, were an attack on Taiwan.

Nor did the 150 academics gain popularity with one of their key demands, as described by Hsin-Hsing Chen, associate professor of the Graduate Institute for Social Transformation Studies: that “the public pension funds divest themselves of any Foxconn stocks until the company shows substantial improvement in its compliance with China’s labor laws.”

This week, China Times, one of the biggest newspapers in Taiwan, chimed in with a different note for the media. It editorially criticized Guo’s attitude toward the 150 professors, and had the following analysis of a widely publicized pay raise that Foxconn granted at the Shenzhen plant:

“Just as Foxconn announced the enormous pay raise in his [Guo’s] Shenzhen plants, they also announced massive relocation of production out of Shenzhen into the low-wage inland provinces. They can do that because their products like iPods are less bulky and the transportation costs are low. But other foreign-owned manufacturers in the high-wage coastal areas in China with bulkier products such as food or cars cannot do that. Guo is scheming against his competitors while trying to win his PR campaign.”
Meantime, some other foreign-invested plants in China, faced with strikes or a labor shortage, were boosting wages. These management concessions may test whether money alone will satisfy the workers, or whether their discontent runs much deeper. Might the workers even be seeking some form of social transformation?

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Monday, June 14, 2010

UN quizzes nations on CSR policies

“Has your national government… adopted a corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy or policies?”

That was the first of 16 questions in a survey that the UN sent last year to all 192 UN member countries. A report on the survey, prepared for John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for business and human rights, was issued early this month under the title “Survey of State Corporate Social Responsibility Policies: Summary of Key Trends.”

During the five months after the survey’s distribution in April last year, only 29 States responded, and of these, only 10 indicated that they had, or were drafting, some form of national CSR policy. Two others said they had no intention to adopt such a policy.

It was a “low overall response rate,” the report conceded. Yet there was enough substance in the 10 responses to produce a 10-page report summarizing key trends, which do not necessarily reflect practices around the world.

Without divulging whether they had responded to the survey, the report notes that six States – Canada, China, Denmark, India, the Netherlands, and Norway – have recently adopted some specific form of CSR policy. Here are a few CSR details on three of them.

Canada, a world leader in mining at home and abroad, in 2009 released a strategy paper for the country’s international extractive sector. A CSR Counselor for that sector, reporting directly to the Minister of International Trade, monitors the practices of Canadian companies operating outside Canada and advises stakeholders on corporate performance.

China issued guidance in 2008 for its state-owned enterprises recommending a system of CSR reporting and protecting labor rights. The government has similar guidelines in the works for foreign-invested firms.

Norway last year adopted a White Paper on the government’s expectation that Norwegian companies operating abroad will respect human rights.

More than half of the report describes the many ways that the 10 nations (unnamed) responded to the survey’s specific questions. Examples:

Does the CSR policy:
-- cover the subsidiaries of corporations? Five do.
-- provide guidance on how companies integrate CSR into their operations? Six do.
-- refer to any binding legal operations on companies? Three do.

The survey provides only a partial snapshot of how the UN’s framework on business and human rights has penetrated the culture of its Member States. Second, it serves as a reminder to States of the specific CSR duties that the Human Rights Council’s 47 member States embraced two years ago. (For background on that event, see “Multinationals, Human Rights, and UN” at
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Monday, June 07, 2010

Spread of precarious work undermines human rights, especially for women

You’re an employer who finds a formula to cut wages, pay no benefits at all, and prevent your work force from trying to unionize. Under the formula, you change the status of a half of your workers from stable employment to a radically different arrangement, such as independent contractor.

The workers have no change in job content or in workplace. The only changes are in smaller paychecks and in the loss of sick leave, vacations, pensions, and paid overtime, among other benefits, including the basic one, job security. From stable employment they fall into the general category called precarious work.

Precarious work, in a frightening variety of exploitative forms, has become so prevalent in the global economy that two global unions last month submitted reports to John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, alerting him to the trend. Both global unions – the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) and the Food, Agricultural, Hotel, and Restaurant Workers International (IUF) – emphasize that precarious work is systematically undermining human rights.

The IMF report singles out a country where precarious employment is rampant and victimizes women especially:

“In Korea, 70 per cent of women workers are precariously employed, earning only 43 per cent of the salaries of regular male workers. In one of the factories cited in the [ILO complaint] against the Korean government, only 5 per cent of the workers are permanent employees and they are all male. Nearly all the precarious workers are women, earning 47 per cent less than their male colleagues.”
The IUF report points out that, apart from the World Bank’s promotion of labor market “flexibility,” there are numerous misleading ways to package precarious work. In South Africa, it is called “black economic empowerment” by Coca-Cola’s bottler, which turned its delivery drivers into “independent owner-operators,“ whose earnings were reduced down to as much as a fifth of what they formerly were. In Pakistan it is called “fighting child labor” for an industrial giant that has a payroll dominated by workers in a precarious status.

Both the IMF and the IUF called upon Ruggie, as part of his program to integrate human rights into corporate practice, to study how the trend toward precarious work undermines human rights, particularly the human rights of workers.

In his June 3 remarks to the International Labor Conference in Geneva, Ruggie said that in carrying out his mandate, he looks to the ILO for guidance, with precarious work as one issue and citing the contribution made by the IMF and IUF submissions.
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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Toward protecting girls and boys laboring on U.S. farms

-- The United States has failed to meet its obligations to implement International Labor Organization (ILO) convention against the worst forms of child labor.

-- It is a “matter of urgency” that the U.S. do so by updating its law and regulations on child labor.

That the central message of a report issued this month by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.

Last November the U.S. government restated its “strong commitment’ to the convention, # 182, ratified and signed in 1999, but, according to the ILRF, the evidence of non-compliance has four dimensions.

1. Regulations listing particularly hazardous jobs have not been updated in 30 years.
2. Current labor law exempts various categories of children from protection against employment in hazardous agricultural jobs.
3. Current law does not prevent children from working long hours in agriculture.
4. Laws that do give child agricultural laborers some protection are not well enforced.

ILRF’s recommendation as a “first step” toward compliance with the convention is directed toward Congress: swift passage of the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), which would raise the standards protecting children in agriculture. For more information, click http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h3564/show/.
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Towards a ‘win-win’ situation on globalization and human rights

Corporations generally are in a “lose-lose situation” regarding human rights. They “are not adequately monetizing and aggregating the costs of conflicts with communities in which they operate, typically involving environmental and human rights concerns.” The result: harm to human rights and to the company itself.

That‘s a key finding discussed in a report to the UN Human Rights Council on June 1 by Professor John Ruggie, special representative for the UN Secretary General for business and human rights.

From his own studies and those of other experts, Ruggie has found that the harm to the corporation included revenue losses due to delays and disruptions; higher costs of financing, insurance, and security; and possible project cancellation.

Governments, through judicial and non-judicial mechanisms, “should form the foundation of a system of remedy for corporate-related system human rights abuse,” Ruggie writes, but these mechanisms all “remain underdeveloped – and too many judicial systems are inaccessible to those who need them most.”

Ruggie, whose day job is professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, has another year to go on a UN mandate that began in 2005. In the next 12 months, he and the team he assembled will put the finishing touches on a UN Framework for business and human rights -- essentially a paradigm to integrate human rights and globalization. As he recognizes in this report, however, “the international community is still in the early stags of adapting the human rights regime to provide more effective protection to individual and communities against corporate-related harm.”
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