Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 9 (Spring 2003): Making Human Rights Work in a Globalizing World: Articles: Building Global Solidarity

Jun 19, 2003

Over the past forty years, the AFL-CIO has established several regional institutes to promote democratic, independent trade unions in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. The institutes’ work has focused on assisting unions to develop their capacity to advance workers’ rights and interests, and part of that capacity is organizing. In 1997, under the leadership of President John Sweeney, the four institutes were consolidated into the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (Solidarity Center). Reflecting the new domestic agenda of the Sweeney administration at the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center’s work began to focus increasingly on organizing activities in conjunction with its overseas partners around the world.

In part, this shift in focus is a direct effect of globalization, which demonstrated with increasing impact the seamlessness of markets that once existed within nation-states and now operate worldwide. Right-to-work states in the American South once put downward pressure on labor wages and standards in northern, heavily unionized states; now the same process is happening on a global basis. This can create perceived tension between unions in developed and developing countries. Organized workers in Europe and the U.S. fear job loss to countries with much lower standards and weak enforcement, and workers in developing countries are unsure whether efforts to improve conditions by organizations such as the Solidarity Center stem exclusively from protectionism.

The Solidarity Center’s work in Cambodia helps to illustrate these tensions and how the Center has overcome them. In this case, a strong focus on organizing, coupled with provisions of a unique trade agreement that rewards compliance with international labor standards, has shown Cambodian workers that American labor is interested in providing assistance in order to improve working conditions while providing more access to the American market for Cambodian-made garments. While organizing is essential, countervailing pressures on economic globalization through a variety of additional mechanisms, such as a U.S.–Cambodia bilateral trade agreement, are key to ensuring the success of organizing drives. Several factors form the underpinning that makes progress on labor rights—in concert with assistance, international solidarity, and ILO conventions—more achievable in Cambodia than in many other developing countries.

The Solidarity Center’s work in Cambodia dates to 1994, when it instituted a program to assist the Cambodians in revising their labor law and began to work with nascent Cambodian labor organizations. Five years ago, Cambodia barely had a garment industry, much less the promise of independent unions or collective bargaining. Now Cambodian workers are using a unique confluence of forces, assistance, and mechanisms—domestic and foreign, governmental and nongovernmental, and trade and labor rights–based instruments—to organize. Like many of its neighbors, Cambodia has very little tradition of democratic development, extremely weak rule of law, corrupt government institutions, and is subject to the pressures of globalization. Without the ability to organize real unions, workers have practically no means to secure their rights or redress of grievances.

The Solidarity Center is working with labor groups in Cambodia to maximize the forces and mechanisms critical to gaining and sustaining strong labor rights. One type of assistance Cambodian workers are utilizing is technical expertise that various labor bodies, including the Global Union Federations, individual unions, and union centers from America and Europe, provide to help build unions’ capacities to organize, defend their legal rights, and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Jason Judd, the Solidarity Center field representative in Cambodia, estimates that, of the 200 garment factories in Cambodia, a large proportion appear to have real independent unions.

A second tactic is solidarity work by U.S., European, and increasingly, other developing country unions in order to put pressure on specific companies. When workers at the Korean-owned Sam Han garment factory in Phnom Penh tried to build an independent union in July 2002, Soum Tola, the president of the union, was savagely beaten three times by company thugs. He quit his job out of fear for his life. Neither the police nor the Ministry of Labor took any interest in the case. Support from the U.S. garment union UNITE, labor education and assistance from the Solidarity Center, and a story in the San Francisco Chronicle captured the attention of The Gap, one of the factory’s biggest buyers. A problem that was unresolved for two months was fixed in two days. The management at Sam Han has stopped the harassment and offered to reinstate Mr. Tola. In another case, two union leaders from the Taiwanese-owned Tommy Textile factory were imprisoned for five months on false charges drummed up by the management and the police. With support from the Solidarity Center, as well as pressure from U.S. unions and the U.S. government, lawyers from the NGO Legal Aid of Cambodia freed the union leaders. After their release in November 2002, the company began to bargain with the union for the first time.

The most important tactic being used in Cambodia is the unique U.S.–Cambodia Textile-Apparel Trade Agreement, signed in 1999, which links access to the U.S. market and garment quota levels to the respect for core labor standards, particularly ILO conventions 87 and 98 (freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively), as well as compliance with Cambodia’s own labor laws. If Cambodia enforces its laws and core labor standards, it stands to gain higher levels of garment exports to the United States.

Other elements that follow from this agreement are key not only to making the agreement work, but also to maximizing the impact of the other forces and assistance mentioned above. First and foremost is the growing labor movement, and the protection for organizing and bargaining rights that the agreement and work by the Solidarity Center help provide. The unions’ success will ensure sustainable worker protection.

The U.S.–Cambodia Textile-Apparel Trade Agreement has also led to the creation of a unique ILO program (funded by the U.S. Department of Labor) that monitors nearly all 200 garment factories for labor law violations, makes recommendations, and reports publicly on the progress, factory by factory. In order to qualify for the increased quota shipment to the United States under the Textile-Apparel Trade Agreement, a factory must participate in the ILO’s monitoring program.

Another element essential to the efficacy of the agreement is the role that the U.S. Department of State, Department of Labor, and the U.S. Trade Representative play in pressuring the Cambodian government to implement the labor rights provisions of the trade agreement. This pressure produces an ongoing engagement between Cambodian and U.S. government agencies, as well as more engagement between the Cambodian government, unions, and the garment manufacturers.

The significance of the multilateral approach is that all players have a stake in the outcome of the process. Cambodian workers benefit from this approach because their unions are strengthened. American workers are aided because they assist in putting brakes on “the race to the bottom”—the lowering of wages and standards in a global marketplace. In the process of putting pressure on manufacturers, American workers and their unions also establish relationships that can lead to their own negotiations. Close communication between the ILO program, Solidarity Center partners, the Cambodian labor ministry, and UNITE results in speedier resolution of many particular cases of labor rights abuse. As a result of this experience, the Solidarity Center and its partners in Asia and around the world are looking at all issues that affect labor rights and conditions. This comprehensive approach has resulted in more coalition-building, more cross-regional initiatives, and a more inclusive view of our work with our partners.

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