IN THE CARIBBEAN
Rosalind McLymont, in her Trade Talk column, takes our unions to task for our views on the Caribbean Basin Security Act but seems to miss a very important point ("To U.S. Garment Unions, Caribbean Trade Bill Is a Defining Issue," May 30, Page 3A).
As she acknowledges, "The unions speak the truth when they trumpet the case of workers' rights in developing countries." She then accuses us, however, of not supporting job creation in the United States by expanding exports, and urges us to take up that challenge.
"Workers rights" is not just a slogan, a nice phrase that everyone can agree is a good thing but not take too seriously, particularly when it comes to questions of enforcement. It is a legal concept with profound economic and moral consequences.
Effective workers rights in the developing world (and elsewhere, for that matter) would dramatically increase international trade. Workers paid 60 cents an hour, as is the case with the 450,000 apparel workers throughout the Caribbean region producing exclusively for the U.S. market, do not become customers for our exports or anyone else's. As Ms. McLymont points out, while production has soared in the "maquilas" of the Caribbean Basin over the past decade, the real wages of workers - already at subsistence levels - have declined.
But for the labor movement this is not a question simply of economics, of
dollars and cents. The conditions in these tropical sweatshops should be an affront to our sense of human decency. Young women, many of them single mothers, are routinely forced to work 12-hour shifts, subjected to constant physical and psychological abuse, fired at the slightest sign of standing up for rights written into the laws of their countries but rarely enforced - for wages that keep them below their own countries' official poverty lines.
"We are not developing a country," a human rights leader from the region recently said. "We are destroying a generation."
We recognize the need for the Caribbean Basin countries not to be placed at a competitive disadvantage with Mexico in regard to access to the U.S. market. That is why we have asked for certain improvements in the Caribbean Basin Trade Security act, also known as the Crane bill, particularly with regard to workers rights.
As the bill stands now, with its extremely weak workers rights provision, it will only intensify the trend toward lower wages, declining economies and unstable labor relations. With fair and effective enforcement mechanisms, the free exercise of workers rights will mean wages that more accurately reflect a worker's productivity, new and expanding markets, and a measure of respect and dignity that is now sadly missing in most of the Caribbean "maquilas."
As we consider this next step in the economic integration of the Americas, we have an opportunity to build into the process meaningful worker rights. There are many responsible businesses that recognize the positive value of worker rights and are justifiably concerned with the public image of their companies because of conditions in developing countries where they operate. It would be a shame for their voices to be drowned out by a few unscrupulous firms that seem to prefer the 19th century to the 21st when it comes to the treatment of workers.
International Ladies Garment
Amalgamated Clothing & Textile
John Graham says Laura Tyson's mistake is to believe that government can manage trade effectively. He says Mickey Kantor's guile is to bash Japanese luxury cars for President Clinton's political gain against the background of an ever-stronger yen. But Mr. Graham's mistake is assuming that investment by the Big Three carmakers in learning the Japanese automotive market will allow them to penetrate it ("Who's Bashing Whom - Again?" May 31, Page 10A).
It might surprise Mr. Graham to know that Detroit has already learned about the Japanese automotive market. The auto companies agree with Ms. Tyson to the extent that they applaud government help in the form of Mr. Kantor's pressure tactics to open Japan's structurally closed market. Perhaps Mr. Graham should interview Thomas Denomme, vice chairman of Chrysler, on the lessens learned in marketing the right-hand drive Grand Cherokee in Japan.
After Mr. Denomme regales him on Jeeps, bats, apples and snow skis, Mr. Graham could then interview John Hall on micro-switches and them move on to other Americans who have tried to market water-jet skis, cellular phones, supercomputers, software, cherries, electronics, air freight services,
financial services and insurance. Mr. Graham can contact me any time to discuss my 20-year investment in learning the Japanese specialty chemicals market.
Kenrich Petrochemicals Inc.