excerpts from the book
Global Village or Global Pillage
Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up
by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello
South End Press, 1994
International Worker Rights
It once was a crime to organize a union or call a strike in
the United States and most other countries. Trade unionists were
regularly fired, blacklisted, beaten, arrested, and sometimes
murdered. Establishing the rights to assemble, organize, bargain
collectively, strike, and participate in the political process
was the focus of a century of struggle. That struggle was fought
on the ground, strike by strike, region by region, and industry
by industry; it was also fought in courts and legislatures in
an effort to establish and enforce these rights as the law of
the land. That struggle continues; in the United States, for example,
thousands of workers are fired every year for trying to organize
From Korea to Kenya and from Chile to China, workers in much
of the world are today struggling to establish these same rights.
An international labor rights movement has developed to support
them. Like Amnesty International and other well-known human rights
organizations, it publicizes abuses and mobilizes support for
the victims. Beyond that, it aims to incorporate labor rights
requirements in national and international trade, investment,
and lending policies.
Labor Rights in History
In a sense, the first great struggle for international labor
rights was the worldwide movement for the abolition of slavery.
Abolitionism was driven both by moral and human rights concerns
and by the fear of the downward pull that slavery would exert
on the conditions of free labor. After a protracted struggle it
succeeded in freeing millions of slaves and abolishing what was
at the time one of the world's most venerable forms of property.
The struggle for the eight-hour day-a basic labor standard-galvanized
the international labor movement throughout the 19th century.
May Day became an international workers' holiday in commemoration
of a general strike for the eight-hour day in Chicago and other
American cities a little over a century ago. The demand for the
eight-hour day unified workers across craft, ethnic, and even
The International Labor Organization
The victors of World War I, spooked by the Bolshevik revolution
in Russia and fearing the spread of labor radicalism, included
a ]list of worker rights in the Treaty of Versailles. These included
the right of association, a wage "adequate to maintain a
reasonable standard of life" the principle that men and women
should receive "equal remuneration for work of equal value,"
and the eight-hour day for which the labor movement had so long
They also established an institution to implement these rights,
the International Labor Organization. The ILO has a tripartite
structure in which each member nation receives four votes, two
for government, one for employers, and one for workers. After
World War II, the ILO was incorporated into the United Nations
system. At present 169 nations belong.
Over the course. of seventy-five years, the ILO has established
174 "Conventions" defining basic labor rights and standards.
The first dealt with hours of work, the most recent with the prevention
of major industrial accidents. The Conventions go through a lengthy
review process and must be passed by a two-thirds vote. Conventions
cover basic human rights (such as freedom of association, abolition
of forced labor, and elimination of discrimination in employment),
minimum wages, labor administration, industrial relations, employment
policy, working conditions, social security, occupational safety
and health, and women workers. Where appropriate, the standards
are adjusted for countries with different levels of development.
When a country ratifies a Convention it makes a formal commitment
to apply its provisions and to accept a measure of international
supervision. (The United States has voted for most Conventions,
but has ratified only eleven.) While they are only legally binding
on countries that ratify them, the Conventions, together with
non-binding Recommendations, form an International Labor Code
that provides a widely-accepted definition of labor standards.
The ILO has no enforcement powers, but its official committees
review national labor laws and alleged violations of basic labor
rights and report their findings; since 1964, nearly 2,000 changes
in national law and practice have been reported in response to
ILO supervisory bodies.
The Labor Rights Movement
In the 1980s, the growing international human rights movement,
combined with globalization of the economy, led to the rise of
a new international labor rights movement. The labor rights approach
tied together two important themes: the democratic concern with
human rights and the need of workers for a level international
playing field in which wages cannot be kept low through repression.
The tremendous success of Amnesty International and other
human rights organizations in bringing human rights issues to
international attention offered a strategic model Just as various
UN declarations and agreements defined standards for human rights,
so the International Labor Code of the ILO provided standards
for labor rights. Publicity could be used both to curb the worst
violators and build support for the standards. Public mobilization
could build pressure for enforcement-both on the perpetrators
and on countries and institutions that could affect them.
A classic example was the international campaign to pressure
3M and the South African government to release Amon Msane, chief
steward at the 3M plant near Johannesburg, from prison. With the
cooperation of many organizations, thousands of letters were written,
company offices were picketed, and 3M officials lobbied. Msane
was freed after 50 weeks; he attributed his release to the pressure
of this campaign.
Similarly, when Salvadoran union official Humberto Centeno
was seized and beaten by the Salvadoran air force, local unions
all over the United States were immediately alerted. Within one
day, 60 members of Congress were contacted, 1,000 telegrams were
sent to the U.S. embassy and the Salvadoran government, and demonstrations
were held in five cities. The next day Centeno was released.
Such efforts continue-with increasing support from modern
communications technology. On the night of October 3, 1993, for
example, Moscow police arrested three leading members of the Russian
Party of Labor. They were systematically beaten to try to get
them to confess to killing two policemen. The next night the wife
of one discovered where they were and contacted a union officer.
Within minutes, a message appealing for protest calls was posted
via E-mail on a series of international computer conferences.
Boris Kagarlitsky, one of those imprisoned, later described what
"We were watching from the cell as the phone calls came
in. One of the fist was from Japan. The police didn't seem able
to believe it. After that, the calls seemed to be coming from
everywhere-there were quite a few from the [San Francisco] Bay
Area in the United States."
When police told the callers that the prisoners had been released,
the prisoners yelled at the top of their lungs that they were
still being held. Within a few hours, most of the detainees were
released and the frame-up charges were abandoned.
Labor Rights and Trade
In the early 1980s, labor rights advocates began focusing
on trade policy and international trade agreements as vehicles
for enforcement. Tying labor rights to trade was not entirely
unprecedented: Nearly a century before, for example, the McKinley
Tariff of 1890 had prohibited imports manufactured by convict
labor. The linkage of labor rights to trade got an inadvertent
push in 1982 when the Polish government banned the Solidarity
union. The next day U.S. President Ronald Reagan said Polish officials
"have made it dear that they never had any intention of restoring
one of the most elemental human rights-the right to belong to
a free trade union." The United States retaliated by withdrawing
Poland's most-favored-nation status.
In 1983, a coalition of labor unions and human rights organizations
formed the International Labor Rights Working Group. Their first
target was the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a program
designed to encourage economic development by reducing tariffs
for developing countries. Noting that GSP was encouraging countries
like Korea and Taiwan to produce goods for the U.S. market under
tyrannical conditions, labor rights advocates in 1984 persuaded
Congress to declare a country ineligible for GSP if it "has
not taken or is not taking steps to afford internationally recognized
worker rights." The rights specified, drawn from key ILO
* the right of association
* the right to organize and bargain collectively
* a prohibition on the use of any form of forced or compulsory
* a minimum age for the employment of children
* acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages,
hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
Labor rights advocates in the United States, now institutionalized
as the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund
(ILRERF), won another victory when Congress in the 1988 Trade
Act defined the denial of internationally recognized labor rights
as an "unfair and unreasonable trade practice" against
which unilateral action could be taken under international trade
rules. Denial of labor rights was declared, in effect, "social
Former Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall, President of the ILRERF,
indicated the aspirations of labor rights advocates:
"Eventually, the United States could push for all its
global trading partners to protect freedom of association, permit
collective bargaining and prohibit forced labor. Also, foreign
nations could be called on to establish a minimum age for employment
and impose acceptable standards for wages, hours and occupational
safety and health."
So far, most US. government evaluations of labor rights violations
have been patently political, marked by the same double standard
hypocrisy that characterizes so much official human rights policy.
The first countries cut off by the Reagan Administration were
Rumania, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. For obviously political reasons,
the Reagan Administration rejected petitions calling for reviews
of labor practices of such blatant violators (but U.S. "friends")
as El Salvador, Guatemala, Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey, and the
Village or Global Pillage