Outsourcing High-Tech Jobs, p. 6
Why not human rights?
Yet it doesn't have to be so. Even some Clinton Administration officials who negotiated past trade treaties now call for re-evaluating them and for including enforceable labor and environmental standards Some bilateral agreements, notably pacts with Cambodia and Jordan, do mention labor rights. A key older agreement, the Trade Act of 1974, considers violations of internationally recognized workers' rights to be an unfair trade practice -- one that countries can retaliate against. U.S. trade preferences are also supposed to hinge on respect for basic worker rights. What are those basic rights? They're spelled out by core conventions set by the International Labour Organization, a special agency of the United Nations with a tripartite structure involving labor, corporations and government. The U.S., however, has one of the worst records in the world for adopting minimal worker rights standards -- It's adopted only half as many core ILO conventions as India. In contrast, Europe and South America have adopted all the core conventions. (Hayden, ILO, Polaski)
Some basic ILO conventions would apply to IT workers, like those that protect the rights of workers to organize through freedom of association -- a right that hasn't yet been ratified by the U.S. or India -- or to enjoy equal rights, without discrimination. To the extent that IT workers can freely organize, they can publicize an alternative vision and influence the public policy debate, as the IEEE is now doing. CPSR could potentially play a similar role. In international organizations like IEEE and CPSR, U.S. professionals can also discuss common concerns across borders, with the people doing outsourced work. If we can work together to change the global balance of power between workers and multinational companies, we will all benefit.
Very few professional IT workers are union members. Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, lured outsourced work by becoming a Software Technology Park zone that allows full foreign ownership and gives companies duty-free imports and tax breaks. Although in India such free-trade zones don't promise freedom from labor law, as they do in China, they let IT companies be categorized as "public utilities" and limit the ability of workers to strike. Before the voters threw out the ruling BJP party, it had proposed more extreme changes "to amend labour laws according to the needs of globalization," including delays for the right to strike and more freedom to lay off workers and control their working hours.. (Datey, Karnik, Samachar)
Where workers are unionized, they often have the clout to negotiate contracts and influence public policy to keep companies from shipping out work as soon as they see a cheaper alternative on the horizon. In India, layoffs are still rare among banking workers, for example, because they're unionized, and in the U.S., the UAW auto workers union has negotiated early retirement, transfer rights and rules covering layoffs for Daimler-Chrysler engineers as well as blue-collar workers. UAW contracts also set up a what are probably the biggest private retraining programs in U.S. history. But while all this helps current workers, it doesn't solve the problem of jobs moving to lower-wage havens over the long-term. (Rauss, Kalita)
Global reaction: Fair Trade
Around the world, governments and citizens are calling for changes to the trade rules that strip power from people and communities, even as they help big companies hop across borders. Global human rights groups like Oxfam call for a bottom-up participatory approach to trade talks instead of conducting them behind closed doors. Such NGOs want, for example, to ease the intellectual property rules that make it so hard for poor countries to get drugs people need. Other groups are lobbying for global environmental standards. Senator Kerry belatedly promised to try to get enforceable labor and environmental standards into future agreements. (Oxfam-America, JohnKerry.com)
The union movement in India has staged more than six general strikes since 1991 to protest the demands of international financiers and the basic lack of democracy in "imperialist globalization," which it blames for rising unemployment, poverty and "reckless privatization" of government services. A one-day strike of well over a million workers, led by bank and insurance company employees, shut down several provinces on February 24, 2004. The dispute was over a new anti-strike ruling as well as corporate globalism in general. A few months later Indians voted out of office the rightist Hindu nationalist alliance credited with attracting high-tech jobs with its "Shining India" program. (BBC News, All-India State Government Employees' Federation, Pilger)
One Indian union federation toured the U.S. in December to discuss with U.S. unions its complaints about corporate-style globalism. Ashim Roy, who represents Indian GE workers, explained that "The number of jobs that multinational companies destroy in the U.S. is far higher than the jobs they create in India, as workers here work harder and longer" and experience "inhuman working conditions. We want to work with our American counterparts to prevent exploitation and guarantee jobs with fair wages and human dignity for all." That way "we may be able to pressure companies to offer better job options," he says. "We will resist the corporations' efforts to pit us against each other," said another Indian union leader. (Shah)
In the U.S., unions are also protesting this "relentless global race to the bottom," and the CWA Communications workers has called for "an alternative path to development -- one that seeks to build sustainable economies by linking the defense of good, secure jobs in one country to the fight for good, secure jobs globally." The AFL-CIO has filed Section 301 petitions against China's widespread violations of workers' rights, as well as the overvalued yuan, saying that both distort trade relations. (Communications Workers of America, AFLCIO 2004-3)
Competitors or allies?
The consumers who are supposed to benefit from lower prices have also started to organize against the worst abuses of globalism, and the Internet facilitates worldwide cooperation among them. A global anti-sweatshop movement led by students, churches and unions is successfully forcing companies like Nike to improve wages and working conditions and respect worker rights in many factories making sports clothing and other college equipment -- and to not flee as soon as conditions get better. Now that the outsourcing of IT jobs has become a high-profile issue, there is some potential to get public support for endangered IT workers, especially given the threat that outsourcing their jobs poses to the nation's overall prosperity, independence and security. Congress took a small first step by implementing one IEEE recommendation, when it authorized $2 million to fund a study studying offshore sourcing and its impact on the country. (IEEE-2)
Often international trade is seen as pitting North against South, and rich countries against poor ones, and Indian programmers are understandably leery of rocking the boat that has so far lifted them. But when it comes to job competition, workers everywhere stand to gain from calling a halt to the worst abuses and changing the rules of the game. The fast, unchecked migration of investment from one country to another is destabilizing not only to workers, but to whole societies and the international trading system itself. That's why it's becoming increasingly hard for world leaders to negotiate more of the same.
The planned Free Trade Area of the Americas pact fell victim to opposition from Brazil and other countries last year, although its main provisions are still being negotiated in talks between the U.S. and individual nations. Now President Bush has to delay submitting the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) to Congress because as of this writing, he doesn't have the votes. Critics "say the agreement would benefit international corporations at the expense of poor subsistence farmers in Central America. They also say the pact's labor and environmental provisions are weak and will lead to abuses." (Dow Jones Newswires) On May Day, workers in Guatemala , Honduras and El Salvador protested against CAFTA.
Can we go on like this?
As long as corporations can profit from outsourcing, unfair trade rules, and global wage competition, President Bush wants to stay the course. But he could be courting disaster. Warnings are getting louder that the world's trade imbalances may not be settled tidily by "market forces." Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker urges the U.S. -- and the world -- to "act now" to stem off disaster. Although Volcker's favorite remedy is belt-tightening through raising interest rates, along with pressing China and other Asian economies to loosen control over their exchange rates, he is probably right that we can't go on like this. "The circumstances seem to me as dangerous and intractable as any I can remember," he wrote in a Washington Post editorial. "As things stand, it is more likely than not that it will be financial crisis rather than policy foresight that will force the change." Economists Catherine L. Mann and Katharina Pluck warn that the "enormous trade imbalance is not sustainable" and that when the "adjustment" comes, it "could end up costing every American $2,350," a bill that will keep rising the longer we refuse to act. (Volcker, Mann and Pluck)
IT workers aren't the only ones who are worried -- the same forces that threaten their jobs are also threatening national and world prosperity. And as pressure grows for solutions, IT workers should find new ways to become part of the solution, and make their voices heard.
Last modified September 07, 2005 02:26 PM