Labour Standards: The Good, the Bad and the Incredibly Ugly

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In an ideal economic world, employees could go to their jobs knowing that they won’t experience harsh conditions, long hours and unfair wages; children will be allowed to be children without the terrors of child labour; and individuals can sleep soundly knowing they will be able to provide for their families and loved ones. Unfortunately, many awake finding themselves far from this utopia, yet somehow many continue to live within this dream.

It seems unreal that labour standards can, and are, so different around the world, but believable or not people are enduring these inequalities because of institutional, corporate and mass consumer actions that are being pushed by this revolutionary idea of globalization and although there are organizations trying to help, these issues still remains in dire need of international attention. Quite obviously, labour standards exist all over the world, even internationally, but we fail to realize that these standards are all part of a game in which we all are guilty of playing.

This game consists of winners and, of course, losers. The winners are very demanding and generally don’t care who’s supplying them their goods, as long as they don’t have to see or hear about it. Those producing the goods can be considered the losers who are working harder than many will ever know, to supply cheap goods to a greedy “winner” consumer. In a statement by the International Labour Organization, it is made clear that the “losers” suffering for the winners gain can often times be children: “…

The International Labour Organization estimates that worldwide 110 million children aged 5-14 years are engaged in labour that can be described as hazardous or intolerable. 1” Ironically, the winners frown upon sweatshops and child labour, yet continue to demand the goods that support the entire system. In the back of the minds of these winners, they know they are doing wrong when they purchase that Gap sweater made in Cambodia or those coffee beans imported from Uganda. But, somehow their conscious once again takes a back seat and the items are purchased and ignorantly worn or consumed. Read about causes of digital divide

Perhaps these winners are isolated from the truth, perhaps they simply do not want to believe the truth since, after all, these injustices are occurring basically worlds away or perhaps they just don’t care at all. International labour standards: what a fantastic idea. But, if it were such a fantastic idea, then why would it still be necessary to examine this topic? First, let’s explore what these international labour standards look like. To begin, a UN specialized agency entitled the International Labour Organization (ILO) was created in 1919, after World War I, to try to deal with the appalling labour conditions world wide.

The ILO has basically composed a comprehensive list of international labour standards which takes the name of “Conventions and Recommendations”2. Basically, these conventions and recommendations are just what the name proposes: recommendations of basic labour standards that adhere to our basic human rights and freedoms on issues that stretch across all aspects of employment. The ILO had an annual conference to discuss less formal recommendations and conventions, generally known as codes of conduct, resolution and declarations3.

Presently there are eight conventions that should be considered fundamental by member nations within their countries labour standards and policies and should apply to employees and workers for the protection of their health and safety. The eight conventions involve the freedom of association, the abolition of forced labour, equality and the elimination of child labour with two conventions falling under each category. In 1995, the ILO held a campaign to ratify these conditions, and to date there have been seventy ratifications from the 175 member states.

Currently, the member states that have not yet ratified are working towards a goal of being able to ratify or deciding whether or not the want to ratify at all. Incredibly, Canada and the United States have both not yet ratified all of the conventions; meanwhile Malaysia and Singapore have outright denounced conventions within the elimination of forced and compulsory labour. So, one main question that comes to mind is that if these countries do not ratify, then how is it that they can still consider themselves part of the ILO and why would they even bother with the ILO if they were only going to denounce basic human rights?

This is where things become significantly difficult, because serious enforcement is really non-existent. With no international government, how could a nation really be prevented from doing whatever they want? Fortunately, the ILO does try to enforce their conventions and recommendations, but research shows that enforcement merely entails paperwork to be filled out and sent back to the UN, alongside with reviews, reports and possible visits to countries. It has been said that, “…

As a historical matter, the characterization and monitoring of labor standards have been allocated to the ILO. However, the ILO has been given little real enforcement power. As a consequence, their activities have been confined to establishing conventions that set minimal labor standards. The ILO also monitors, disseminates information, and provides technical assistance. 4” As the ILO runs now, they follow certain steps to maximize the power they have been given, although it may not be much.

In the “regular system of supervision” paperwork is filled out by member nations and is then reviewed by a Committee of Experts. The report that comes from the Committees review is taken to the annual conference and given to the tripartite Conference Committee which is made up of three sections (workers’, employers and the government) that work together all within the United Nations. Finally, another report is generated by the tripartite and presented at another IL conference.

Now, for example, if a more serious case where to come up where a nation had allegations held against them then similar procedures, as with the regular system of supervision, would be taken (reports and reviews), but if it is a very serious case the government concerned may be visited. The truth is that countries do not want to be that terrible antagonist who knowingly allows sweatshops and child labour to flourish within their borders and with the emergence of a new information technology based audience information is more easily accessed than ever.

Nations are finding themselves torn between right and wrong in the uproar of the new focus on global trade and this point can be seen for several reasons. One reason is found in the idea of comparative advantage which, by definition, basically focuses on one product that a country can produce more efficiently and cheaper than any other product. And since our international market seems to be based on a theory of “the cheaper, the better”, the market really takes up on high-yield, cheap “by any means” goods. So, it is in a countries best interest to find that one product that they can produce dirt cheap and invade the international market with.

But, that means that governments are basically taking any means possible to maintain that comparative advantage within the international marketplace, which in turn means that the workers producing these comparative advantage goods are being over looked and exploited in a typical case of profits before people. Now, another reason nations might find themselves torn between right and wrong is found in the new role of competitiveness within the market. Much like comparative advantage, competitiveness is experienced in many countries, but occurs more severely within the countries of the lesser developed world.

In India, for example, farmers are being forced to sell cash crops for a living, a living that falls far below the northern elite’s standard. Originally, these farmers provides for themselves and their communities, producing coarse cereals, lentils, maize and millets that could effectively and nutritiously feed the population. But now the government of India is finding, through supply and demand, that they can competitively produce Soya beans and wheat crops to big food processing factories, who in turn export the goods to an international market.

Unfortunately the hard workers, who also happen to be the losers in this case, are receiving no compensation as they struggle for survival performing back-breaking tasks for an insignificant amount of money. Families in countries growing cash crops are finding that they barely have enough money to get from one year to the next and somehow these huge factories and corporations are only adding onto their already incredible wealth. This same story is told in many villages and communities around the world; people are starving, while working unfair jobs with unfair wages and conditions to produce food for a competitive international market.

It is simply mind-boggling the things human beings are doing to fellow human beings as if, after all this time, the fight for equality means nothing in the face of mass consumerism, global trade and capitalist profits. Perhaps now it is necessary to ask why these inequalities in labour practices around the world are even occurring. Who is pushing so severely for these products and for international trade to hold such prestige and presence?

It is generally said that transnational corporations and international institutions, which there are three in particular (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and The World Trade Organization) that have been referred to as the Three Stooges and the causes of so many problems. It is these, and other, like-minded institutions and corporations who are seen as the foes forcing villages to engage in competitive cash crops, which ironically they will never be able to afford, and they are also considered to be the foes moving beyond the control of the nation’s government policy making and control. [t]he governance of the corporation is now as important in the world economy as the government of countries. 5″

Countries are finding that they are losing control over their economic policies because TNC’s are becoming involved not only in their corporate homeland, but also in the foreign countries where they have moved the operating plants6. George Tsogas states that, “… such processes have created a “web” of global corporate and economic interests, which often lie beyond the control of the nation state or any nationally functioning organization… ” These transnational corporations, in a fight to remain competitive, are moving their manufacturing plants abroad where labour is cheaper and unions are practically non-existent. This is proving to be the smart way of a competitive corporation: to move from their homeland, taking jobs away from their own nation’s people, and place production and manufacturing plants overseas so that they can exploit workers who have never known better.

The only difference is that before the entrance of TNC’s and institutions exploited workers could at least grow crops to feed themselves and their people, but now even that has been taken away from them in a move towards profits as if basic human rights were too much to ask for. This is corporate capitalism in the simplest and harshest of terms. With that said and done, what is globalization and what does it have to do with the issue of labour standards? Globalization, by definition, is the increased mobility of goods, services, labour, technology and capital throughout the world.

Interestingly enough, globalization can be related quite effectively to fire. As we all know, fire can be used for good as well as bad and the same can be said for globalization. If fire is misused, it could potentially burn down houses, destroy forests and destroy lives in unimaginable ways, but on the other hand if fire is used properly it can heat houses, and communities, and it can actually help in a natural advancement of a forests ecosystem. On the topic of globalization, Jan Aart Scholte stated that: “In some respects globalization has prompted increased human security… .. However, in other ways globalization had perpetuated or even deepened warfare, environmental degradation, poverty, unemployment, exploitation of workers and social disintegration. 8” On the destructive side, the very nature of “globalizations” definition is thought to be the main driving point for corporate capitalism to continue. Capitalism can best be described as neo-liberalism at its best: private or corporate ownership of capital goods, investment decisions made by a private sectors and price, production and distributions that are all determined by a free market9.

Globalization is basically the spreading of information, production, trade, commerce, communication, technology and ideals by means of information technology, or simply by means of technological advances, all while passing over borders and creating a more connected global community. By this definition, it can quite obviously be seen that globalization is pushing for trade, competition and capital and therefore pushing for the need of TNC’s and institutions which in turn push expectations for products, goods and commodities.

The expectations for these products and commodities are quickly rising, leaving lesser developed and manufacturing countries struggling to keep up with the demands of the globalized economy and marketplace. Now, with the positive use of globalization we can see that there is a slow attempt to move the bad from the picture to replace it good but, as mentioned before, the process is proving to be very slow and painful.

The positive possibilities, in light of labour standards, are endless, and although we may never find absolute security we can attempt to eliminate as many threats as possible and enjoy the benefits that globalization does have to offer10. For example, information can be found on the International Labour Organizations website, which without the spreading of information and technology would be near-to impossible to access or even know exists. The United Nations is now online with availability to all that can seek access.

Opportunities to learn are much closer than they ever were, and opportunities to speak out are as well. Through technological advancements people worldwide are using the internet to collaborate and unite. The internet is offering the opportunity to learn that individuals are not alone, that there are people who want to help and there are certainly ways of receiving help. One major problem that many are facing is the idea of the “digital divide”. Internet usage is limited to a certain elite class, or also known as the IT “haves” which obviously carry along with them the information technology “have nots”.

As a classmate of mine has cleverly declared in many of my political science classes, “half of the world has not yet made their first phone call! 11” So, how can it be expected, with all of this wonderful information out there, that individuals worldwide are actually able to access this information? Imagine a young woman in Thailand, forced into prostitution because her family couldn’t afford to raise her and she basically has no other means of survival.

It is clear that she won’t, and most likely never will, have access to the Internet or anything that it has to offer to today’s technology based societies. So, with this in mind, what is being done for people like the young girl from Thailand? Quite obviously, she can’t be forgotten about by the United Nations and the ILO because she simply doesn’t have access to the internet. Fortunately, with all of the so-called greedy corporations looking to make a few extra dollars, there are organizations looking out for the “little guys”.

Amnesty International, is an excellent example. They are a worldwide campaigning movement and as found on their website, “… Amnesty International’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards. 12” But, how can AI reach out to people internationally, to all corners of the world without the use of information technology? Amnesty Internationals focuses on getting information to the global public.

It may be done by way of conferences, their extensive web based information, letter writing campaigns to corporations or governments, and also AI is most effective in their partnering with the United Nations in constructing treaties to be ratified by member countries. Pressure is being put on nations, corporations and institutions to clean up their act. Amnesty feels that it is the responsibility of these economic actors to recognize the impact their decisions are making on people globally.

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