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How Will The Global Economy Protect the "Primordial Rights of Every Man?"
By William Bole
Our Sunday Visitor
For 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 Management, an elite mutual or "hedge" fund.
So far, however, the architects have yet to
sketch in specific plans to shield other inhabitants of the global economic
village, namely workers. 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
Words like this run afoul of mainstream economics, which doesn't normally include wage and work standards in the rules of the financial game. "What the Pope is saying is that we need a global architecture that goes beyond finance," said Robert A. Senser, a retired U.S. labor attache who edits a bi-weekly electronic report, Human Rights for Workers.
At 78, Senser is one layman who is busy applying
Catholic social principles to the global workplace. In his view, bankers
and investors "can take care of themselves. They'll fall back on their
last million." But in the global economy, "you have to look out for people
who can't protect themselves as easily."
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
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
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
For Senser, the breakthrough lies in the initiative taken by industry leaders, especially Liz Claiborne, Inc. "It's a dream world if you think human rights groups are going to solve this problem," he said, citing the private sector's indispensable role.
Making sure products are "sweatshop free" isn't
as simple as the slogan suggests. "The problem is so great, so deeply rooted,
so chaotic, that any effort to control it is enormously difficult," said
Senser. 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
"It's not impossible," he said of the task of monitoring production. "But it takes more concerted commitment and energy than it's been given until now." 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 of conduct two years ago, under White House sponsorship.
Organized labor broke with other members of
the partnership, including the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, in rejecting
the agreement made public in November. (So did some leaders of industry
who concluded, from the
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.
"It's surprising how small the labor costs
are," Senser explained. He took, as an example, a Phillips Van Heusen shirt
that retails for $15. The labor share of that price tag is six or seven
cents. (Van Heusen is a signer of the apparel agreement.) "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
Which leads back to the question of financial markets and international trade rules. In principle, Senser has no objection to guarding investors from 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.
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.
"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 Sciences, he added that this global gift has yet to be shared with the full family of God.
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