International Worker’s Rights Remain A Strong Issue

(In light of Apple’s recent issues with Foxconn, I thought I’d post this gem from the past.)

Levi Strauss & Co. and Reebok Corp. are among the first three companies signing on to a new campaign created by the International Labor Rights Fund and other groups to promote workers’ rights in Chinese factories.

The companies agreed to implement 10 business practices regarding labor in these factories. Toymaker Mattel has also agreed to participate.

Workers rights are a huge issue for China's relationship with the world.

Workers rights are a huge issue for China’s relationship with the world.

“Workers producing goods in China are being exploited. They face hazardous working conditions and are forced to work excessive overtime,” said Bama Athreya, director of the China and Southeast Asia program at the Washington-based ILRF at a press conference Wednesday, announcing the program. “Human rights principles are protected on paper, but not in practice.”

Although the U.S. government’s policy of “constructive engagement” has benefited U.S.business, Athreya said, it did not accomplish its intended goal of improving human rights in Chinese factories. Instead, she said, she hopes this new set of human rights principles for U.S. businesses in China will brighten the “bleak” situation in factories.

Companies joining the program agree that no goods produced within company-owned facilities or those of suppliers will be manufactured by bonded labor, forced labor or through prison camps. Facilities and suppliers must also provide wages that meet workers’ basic needs, and fair working hours that at a minimum adhere to China’s national labor laws.

Employees must also have freedom of association, including the right to form unions and to bargain collectively, and freedom of expression. Factory employees must not be subjected to discrimination in hiring. Finally, the principles prohibit the use of child labor, production methods that negatively affect the occupational safety of workers and corporal punishment.

A Human Rights for Workers working group, which includes representatives of human rights, consumer and shareholder groups, will provide guidance for companies to implement the principles. As part of the agreement, businesses, which will be responsible for the monitoring of the factories, will provide an annual report to the public detailing company compliance with the initiatives.

Athreya said ILRF and labor rights group Global Exchange and Human Rights in China will work to promote the principles and convince other companies to join. She said that the addition of more companies would encourage both the U.S. and Chinese governments to find new ways to promote human rights issues as part of their bilateral dialog.

As President Clinton and Congress consider whether to extend China normal trade relations for another year, allegations of worker rights abuses are key factors. Clinton has until June 3 to grant the annual extension. In addition, China’s ability to guarantee labor rights also is a sticking point in the country’s bid to join the World Trade Organization, although at the moment China has refused to resume WTO talks because of anger over the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

“There’s a much greater sensitivity now [to human rights abuses in China],” Athreya said. “Earlier efforts may not have been recognized, but we think now is the right time.”

Sharon Cohen, vice president of public affairs at Reebok and executive director of the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, said Reebok is “committed to ongoing efforts to improve the conditions of factories around the world.” More than 25 percent of Reebok’s footwear is produced in China, she said.

In addition to committing to ILRF’s principles, Cohen said Reebok started a “worker communication system” that allows for more effective communication between factory workers and corporate officials. Factory workers receive with their paycheck a postage-paid form to express workplace concerns. Since the system’s inception, Reebok corporate offices have received and investigated complaints about food, sexual harassment and discrimination, she said.

Clarence Grebey, Levi’s director of global communications, said Levi’s agreed to ILRF’s 10 principles because “the company shares with the other signatories and the ILRF the desire to improve workplace conditions and labor standards for workers in China and everywhere.”

In contrast, Levi’s opted not to become a member of the Apparel Industry Partnership, the White House’s anti-sweatshop task force, whose members include Liz Claiborne, Nike, Reebok and Patagonia. “With regard to the AIP, we have applauded the efforts of the partnership and share some of their objectives,” Grebey said. “One of their objectives, however, is to impose a single formula for the industry, and we don’t believe there is a `one size fits all’ for the industry.

“ILRF approached us in light of our existing codes of conduct and in light of recent actions we have taken to push the interests of workers in China,” he said. “Levi’s feels this is a cause that is appropriate to be aligned with and to support.”

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