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New Report Exposes World Labor Standards

Around 2,000 protesters marched outside McDonald’s headquarters during their shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois to demand better pay and living standards for employees. The demonstration featured the Fight for 15 demands raised in cities like Seattle and the right to form a union.

Fight For 15 written in lighted signs at a protest

A new labor report shows US workers face systematic abuses of their rights.

Oak Brook police arrested 149 people in total, despite it being a peaceful demonstration. Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union, applauded the efforts of the police even though she was among those who protested.

While the protest forced executives from McDonald’s to vacate their headquarters, CEO Don Thompson said the following day to shareholders McDonald’s workers were offered not only “real careers” but also “competitive wages.”

A new report by the International Trade Union Confederation highlighted such harsh labor standards not only in the U.S. but also throughout the world. From a scale of 1, which means “irregular violations of rights,” to 5+, which means “no guarantee of rights due to the breakdown of the rule of law,” the ITUC uncovered how labor is treated in both developed and developing countries.

The ITUC was founded in 2006 after a merger between the World Confederation of Labor and the International Conference of Free Trade Union. It represents millions of workers worldwide and, as they state, they primarily aim to promote and defend “workers’ rights and interests, through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions.” Its headquarters operates in Brussels, Belgium.

The report was titled the “Global Rights Index” and its purpose is to put “abusive governments and companies on notice that the international trade union movement stands in solidarity with workers who are denied fundamental rights.”

The worst places in the world for workers to work will be exposed and the ITUC will demand change, demand decent jobs. Global solidarity in support of countries where here are no rights, inadequate laws or effective labour market institutions will garner the support of trade unions around the world to rectify this situation. Governments and business that allow or perpetrate oppression of workers cannot hide.

The report, conducted over the course of a year, found the most frequent violation of worker rights was when workers participated in strike. Joining unions and calling for a strike were also problems in numerous countries with different standards applied.

In total, eight countries received a 5+ rating with a few notable countries like Syria, Ukraine, Palestine, Libya and South Sudan.

The United States received a rating of 4, which means there are “systemic violations of rights.” Other countries that received a 4 include Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan, Yemen, Iran and Argentina. Countries with a lower rating include Brazil and the United Kingdom at 3, Switzerland and Spain at 2 and South Africa and Germany at 1.

Russia, framed as public enemy number one in mainstream outlets, received a 2. This does not mean Russia is a better place for workers as 60 workers died in constructing for the Sochi Olympics, but it is not as bad as in the United States.

Recently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, won the first-ever ITUC World’s Worst Boss poll. Other American CEOs nominated in the poll included JPMorgan Chase CEO Jaime Dimon, Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Wal-Mart CEO C. Douglas McMillon. Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, explained the significance of this vote:

Jeff Bezos represents the inhumanity of employers who are promoting the American corporate model. The message to big business is back off, you are not going to mistreat workers, Burrow said.

For a company that patented pictures with a white backdrop, Amazon is no stranger to labor disputes with its workers. The Supreme Court recently took up Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Buck which primarily deals with overtime pay not given to Amazon workers. The Supreme Court will make its decision next year, but other companies are alarmed by this push-back by workers as In These Times journalist Bruce Vail cited it may have repercussions beyond Amazon:

The case has attracted the attention of pro-business lobby groups, which often fight interpretations of the FLSA that would lead to an expansion of overtime pay. The Retail Litigation Center, the Society for Human Resources Management, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers filed a joint amicus brief in the case in favor of denying additional wage payments to the workers.

But this is an issue beyond the corporate sphere with the federal government also to blame. Michael Grabell of ProPublica provided excellent coverage of the weakness of temporary worker protection laws. Moreover, he references “permatemp,” which means  “hiring a temp for years to do the same job permanent employees do, but without the benefits and protections.”

The easy abuse of temp workers by companies looking to reduce costs surely was a factor contributing to the rating.

Yet critics would call the U.S. a haven for workers to work in. Forbes contributor Jeffrey Dorfman stated, due to higher labor productivity and average wage, the U.S. is a friendlier place for workers than in Europe. He elaborated what this data holds for workers in the U.S.:

We need to recognize the truth in this data and adjust our thinking on labor-business disputes. The numbers say American workers actually have things pretty good,

It may be a characteristic of contributors to Forbes to either produce a red herring or write ad hominems or cherry-pick data, but Dorfman is incorrect as it excludes not only the purchasing power between the dollar and the euro, but also excludes the cost-of-living. Economist Thomas Piketty points out, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, how important it is to understand the distortions with such data:

[T]he labor market is not a mathematical abstraction whose working are entirely determined by natural and immutable mechanisms and implacable technological forces: it is a social construct based on specific rules and compromises.

Furthermore, it matters whether the median wage is the same and how much cost these workers face in their lives. Americans must worry about health care costs, while their European counterparts are guaranteed it (well, in most cases). It is an embarrassment for writes to claim workers in the U.S. have safe standards in their workplace.

Yet it is important not to primarily focus on the U.S. despite it leading neo-liberalism, certainly a contributor to declining domestic labor standards, in the developed and developing world.

A few examples from the report that should be noted such as in Greece, where last month it was reported it had, on average, 14 protests per day since the bailout four years ago. Greece is a case study for all European countries targeted by the troika as economist Mark Weisbrot elaborated upon when discussing their effects:

[M]ost of the eurozone countries have little to no control over the most important policies that the government can use to increase employment and income, includingmonetary, exchange rate, and increasingly, fiscal policy. They have ceded this control to the eurozone authorities – most importantly the European Central Bank (ECB). The decision makers for the more victimized countries – including Spain, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and Italy – are now ‘the Troika:’ the ECB, European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). They have their own agenda, and their priority is not restoring employment or even bringing about a speedy economic recovery

It should be noted Portugal received a 3, Spain and Ireland received a 2 and Italy received a 1. Greece’s high score may be the extent of extreme austerity combined with a failing government where neo-Nazi Golden Dawn is gaining traction by being purely nationalistic and excluding immigrants, who are suffering the worst.

Cambodia received a 5, which means there is “no guarantee of rights.” Earlier in the year, police officers fired at garment workers protesting for better wages.  The report found “90 percent of workers in the garment sector do not have secure employment contracts.” It expanded on what workers in Cambodia face at their jobs:

Garment workers in Cambodia work under sweatshop conditions. The vast majority of workers perform overtime work beyond the legal limitations. More than half of the garment factories do not comply with health and sanitation requirements with respect to access to drinking water and the availability of soap and water near toilets. In 2012, 1,686 fainted at the workplace due to the perilous conditions that are prevailing.

Workers make products for companies like Nike, Wal-Mart, H&M operate in Cambodia, which understand the cheap labor they can reap for their benefit. The State Department claimed in a 2011 report the U.S. “government, the ILO, and others are working closely with Cambodia to improve enforcement of the labor code and workers’ rights in general.” Yet, the use of force by the Cambodian government, after backtracking a deal to increase the minimum wage, against workers elicited no aggressive action by the U.S. government.

In general, each country could be discussed in a case-by-case basis, which produce a significant amount of material. Yet, it could be simplified to discussing the system this all operates under—neoliberalism. Specifically, neoliberalism exists in the umbrella of capitalism, which causes such deteriorating of labor standards in these countries.

Economist Michael Perelman spoke about what capitalism, regardless of what form it is in, in the collective work titled Anti-Capitalism. The basis of this system exists as social relations, which explains such violations in the report:

[T]he defining characteristic of a capitalist society is the dominant form of social relations. The fundamental capitalist social relation is the relation between wage labour and capital. Within this arrangement, capital, represented by an individual employer or a firm, hires people with the intention of profiting from their work.

Workers in Oak Brook understood they were living with poverty wages the company refused to acknowledge and many commentators in the media uphold as harsh reality. Yet they are fighting to raise their wages to ensure they are the ones, not the capitalists, to profit off of their work.

Work in the U.S. could be seen with May Day as one historical example of how the government attempts to hide International Workers’ Day. President Barack Obama, on May Day, celebrated this reactionary holiday by calling for unity among everyone—elite and commoner alike:

On Loyalty Day, we renew our conviction to the principles of liberty, equality, and justice under the law. We accept our responsibilities to one another. And we remember that our differences pale in comparison to the strength of the bonds that hold together the most diverse Nation on earth.

This reports shows how labor is under attack in a number of countries facing an incessant number of problems in a globalized economy still suffering from the 2007-08 global financial meltdown. Governments are full of elites primarily interested in playing geo-politics on issues that exclude the rest of the population. In addition, major companies, national and international, also join in these games to promote their own agenda.

However, hope still reigns strong as these protests not only in Oak Brook, but across the world show. These workers understand they are willing to fight to get a better life as they realize the state of affairs is unfair.

The hopes of these workers echo the words of revolutionary Victor Serge right before he passed away in 1947. As Sophie Pinkham wrote in The Nation, Victor Serge participated in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution only to see it destroyed and usurped by a totalitarian state by Josef Stalin:

Behind us lies a victorious revolution gone astray, several abortive attempts at revolution, and massacres in so great a number as to make you dizzy. I have more confidence in mankind and in the future than ever before.

Such confidence is the intent of the authors of this report as a change is needed to overcome such exploitation by the capitalists operating in the system.

Photo by Mikasi released under a Creative Commons license.

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Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan

Brandon Jordan is a freelance journalist in Queens, NY and written for publications such as The Nation, In These Times, Truthout and more.