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Robert Senser & International Labor Standards
By William Bole
December 17, 1998For much of the past decade, global capital seemed invincible as it trotted from New York to Bangkok and all financial points in between. Then came the Asian contagion, the collapse of markets in Southeast Asia that has spread to Tokyo, Moscow, Sao Paolo and other financial capitals.
The turmoil has triggered worries about the free flow of capital and the need for international control mechanisms. The buzz phrase is "global financial architecture."
The common blueprint calls for sheltering of
investors and creditors from the most intemperate financial climates. The
Federal Reserve Board illustrated this compassion recently when it rode
to the rescue of Long-Term Capital
In his own language, Pope John Paul II has
appealed for a global financial architecture, though with a fuller design.
Speaking last year to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Pope
called for a "balanced, well-
Words like this run afoul of mainstream economics,
which doesn't normally include wage and work standards in the rules of
the financial game.
Some international leaders, including President Clinton, have begun uttering what Senser considers the two magic words, "labor standards."
Meantime, a few well-known apparel companies are looking to lift standards in their own industry, which is deeply entangled with Third World sweatshops. Last month, a group of nine manufacturers and human rights organizations reached an agreement to curtail the sweatshop trade.
The companies, including Nike, Reebok, and Liz Claiborne, aren't notably inspired by papal principles. They're animated more by bad publicity -- especially in this season of shopping -- over shirts, slacks, and tennis shoes made with sweatshop labor.
Under the new agreement, factories that produce goods for American companies could not use forced labor or require employees to work more than 60 hours a week. The pact also forbids hiring children under 14 years old.
However, the agreement does not require that workers
receive a "living wage," and it lets companies do business in countries,
such as China, which repress labor rights. With that in mind, labor unions
have rejected the agreement. Unions also say the monitoring system proposed
under the agreement
Senser, who worked for the AFL-CIO's Asia policy arm after retiring from the Foreign Service in 1983, finds himself agreeing both with supporters and critics who say the code of conduct doesn't go far enough.
"It's a step forward, but there are miles and miles
still to go," said Senser, a product of the Chicago Catholic social-action
movement who runs the labor-rights Internet site (www.senser.com) from
his home in Reston, Virginia.
For example, Wal-Mart might only work with factories that use no child labor. But those factories might secretly contract out to others that make the product more cheaply - with child labor.
"In some places, the subcontracting process is so
fluid, so loose, so filled with temptation, that it's fair to say that
a large company in the United States might not know what's happening" in
offshore factories, Senser noted.
Senser urges trade unions, including the Union of Needletrades, Industrial
and Textile Employees, to hang tough and bargain for a stronger agreement
limiting sweatshop labor. UNITE belonged to the task force, called the
Apparel Industry Partnership, which began work on an anti-sweatshop code
At the center of contention is a living wage, that
is, enough to meet a family's basic needs. The agreement requires only
that companies pay workers the minimum required by local law, or the prevailing
industry wage, whichever is higher.
Senser doesn't quibble with industry's argument
that there is no "objective formula" for setting a living wage across the
global workplace. Nevertheless, he believes industry can and should make
a commitment to at least gradually lifting wages above the bare, legal
minimum set by governments of developing nations (which often don't enforce
"We're talking about peanuts," said Senser. "Of course," he added with a fast dose of capitalist reality, "that's how profits are made, a few pennies here, a few pennies there. When you multiply that by the volume of world trade, it adds up to billions, and that's what Wall Street lives on."
Which leads back to the question of financial markets and international trade rules.
In principle, Senser has no objection to guarding investors rom the worst calamities, though he suspects the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Council went overboard when it insured investment firms against losses in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
"It's Wall Street protectionism at work in an especially risky corner of the world," he wrote in his May 14 bulletin of Human Rights for Workers. At any rate, he would like to see the global safety net extended to workers. That would include their right to unionize.
A parishioner of St. Thomas A Becket Church in Reston,
Virginia, Senser wrote for the now-defunct Catholic monthly, Work, from
the late 1940s to the early 1960s.
These days, Senser is pursuing what Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have termed the "global common good."
"Globalization is a blessing from God. It opens up tremendous opportunities for producing wealth," said Senser. But, echoing John Paul's message to the Pontifical Academy of Social Scie nces, he added that this global gift has yet to be shared with the full family of God.
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