Thou shalt not speak ill of the recently dead. Quite. But it’s been many weeks now since Steve Jobs passed on, an event that was marked by outpourings of eulogies on the part of even some lefties. Besides, the following is NOT a criticism of the man, nor does it focus entirely on his company.

SACOM (Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) and some other labour rights NGOs based in Hong Kong are battling Apple and other firms that fail to observe minimum labour standards in China.

In a recent report entitled “iSlave Behind the iPhone: Foxconn Workers in Central China”, SACOM sets out what is wrong with the way workers are treated (appalling working conditions, miscalculations and withholding of wages, forced and unpaid overtime, workers exposed to dangerous chemicals and extreme regimentation) and suggests remedies. (A living wage for all the workers, setting reasonable production targets, recesses and meal breaks [yes, this needed to be stated], health protection; genuine trade union representation, compensation for rights violations and remedial actions with public scrutiny.) http://sacom.hk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/20110924-islave-behind-the-iphone.pdf

Sukumar Muralidharan said in response to a SACOM piece I ’share’d on Facebook: “…enforcing fair labour standards and ensuring a safe and secure workplace, is the responsibility of local authorities”.

Indeed so. Sukumar is right.

But when national, and local, authorities suppress freedom of association, deny genuine trade union rights and make it easy for bosses to ride roughshod over workers’ interests, what then?

Hence the campaigning aimed against companies themselves. SACOM’s demands are reasonableness itself. But they fall on deaf ears within China. (SACOM is asking for the moon in suggesting that workers be allowed to “select their representatives”. That’s democracy, pure and simple. Not on in China for now.)

Courtesy SACOM

Provinces, cities, towns and villages in China all have a vested interest in thriving businesses. The more businesses implanted and the more profitable they are, the greater the revenue (a lot of which goes into the pockets of a legion of rent-seekers). Labour rights be damned!

There are instances in China of the general manager also being the Communist Party branch secretary and/or secretary of the union affiliated to China’s sole union – the All China Federation of Trade Unions. The ACFTU proclaims its main preoccupation is stability and “nation-building”. Lip service is paid to protecting labour rights.

China’s own journalists have gone about exposing corruption or gross injustice against workers. Often the journalists get pulled up, even punished and in extreme cases their publications shut down.

There’s this concept – and a lucrative business has grown around it – of corporate social responsibility (CSR). But what does it amount to? In as much as there might be people of good conscience staffing some of these CSR outfits within and outside companies, they do need to be appealed to and the kind of pressure labour NGOs apply would actually come in handy for some of them.

And then there’s the Global Compact: http://www.unglobalcompact.org/ All goody goody stuff. Again it keeps a few guys employed in New York and elsewhere.

Prof John Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights (http://www.business-humanrights.org/SpecialRepPortal/Home) has proposed a policy framework “based on three complementary and interdependent pillars: the state duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business; the corporate responsibility to respect human rights; and the need for greater access by victims to effective remedy, judicial and non-judicial.”

Prof Ruggie’s is a serious and painstaking effort at tackling the issue of what should plainly be termed gross criminality among the world’s corporations and magnates.

In China, the state cares not (or does only to the extent of quelling mass protests and maintaining stability). Businesses would rather not mention the words human rights while operating in China, which is a pity as they can brandish the Ruggie framework. And as for victims, the Chinese state has come up with ways of frustrating their efforts at seeking remedy.

But back to SACOM: Their and similar NGOs’ efforts are essential. Underfunded human rights organizations mostly based in Hong Kong are the only ones hammering away regularly, albeit feebly, at the excesses taking place in China and elsewhere.

Some, such as China Labour Bulletin, headed by Han Dongfang, who founded an autonomous workers’ federation during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, are also helping individual workers fight cases. (See CLB’s Labour Rights Litigation page: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/node/100011).

This blog does not purport to imply that all is hunky dory in terms of trade union rights or labour welfare in other parts of the world. A major reason for the rest of the world’s businesses buying Chinese products or investing in Chinese factories is precisely that the workers there are kept cowed. Businesses would like to see similarly docile labour elsewhere too.

One other avenue open to campaigners but limited to action within and against companies based in the United States is the 222-year-old Alien Tort Claims Act: http://www.globalpolicy.org/international-justice/alien-tort-claims-act-6-30.html (This weblink is a good resource.)

ATCA has yielded remedies for a group of Burmese villagers against Unocal over alleged human rights abuses including forced labour, some sort of settlement for the Ogoni people of Nigeria for the suffering inflicted on them in terms of human rights violations and environmental damage and a limited settlement in a case filed on behalf of two Chinese dissidents whose identity had been revealed to the Chinese government by Yahoo.

However, will US courts continue to allow albeit limited challenges to American corporations marauding around the world, is an issue that needs constant watch. Furthermore, the millions of workers whose rights are being violated can hardly afford to wait for years and years for cases to be decided on.

And this avenue made not a whit of difference for the thousands of victims, and their families, in the Bhopal disaster.

One drawback of the legal redress route is that lawyers defending corporations are vastly better off compared to those taking up workers’ cases. And the The Charles Hector Fernandez case in Malaysia shows how a company can financially cripple a human rights activist. (See http://www.omct.org/human-rights-defenders/urgent-interventions/malaysia/2011/08/d21400/)

So there it is: When governments in countries such as China, Cambodia or Burma, India or Malaysia not only fail to enforce labour standards but acquiesce in exploiting workers, activists have no choice but to target corporations and that is what has happened vis-à-vis Apple, Nike, Pepsi and a host of other big brand name companies.

About walkerjay

The author, N. Jayaram, a journalist now based in Bangalore after more than 23 years in East Asia (mainly Hong Kong and Beijing) and 11 years in New Delhi, was with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years and Agence France-Presse for 11 years and is currently engaged in editing and translating for NGOs and academic institutions.
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  1. yes, it is sad, the campaigns on brands have been going on for a decade or two, and what we see is, more PR people, CSR folks being employed (with an income hundreds, if not thousands times more than an ordinary worker) to speak for the company.

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