Global Witness

Labor Presents Its Case to WEF

Han Dongfang, who traveled from Hong Kong for the Forum, nodded as he listened to the other panel members. He was a railway worker in 1989 when he joined other advocates of free trade unions at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. He was declared a "counterrevolutionary" and jailed for 22 months. He now publishes the China Labour Bulletin, a newspaper aimed at Chinese workers, and hosts a Hong Kong-based radio talk show where he takes calls from workers in mainland China.

"I got a call in January from a 19-year-old girl from Guangdong Province," said Han in English. "She works for a toy factory that manufactures for the U.S. She said for the two months before Christmas, they worked from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Some days they worked to two or five in the morning." The wages, Han said, were less than 20 cents an hour. "How do you believe this?" he asked the audience. This was "the toy explosion," he explained, under which many American manufacturers have switched production to China under new, liberal trade agreements. Han said he asked the woman why she just didn't quit. She told him this would be impossible, since she had paid the factory owner a month's wages just to get the job in the first place. Her employer had also held back her first month's wages. "If they run away, they lose the money," Han explained. "That's how they keep workers there."

Trumka turned to Han and asked if things perhaps had changed since his arrest 13 years earlier. A year ago, Han responded, he learned of a silk-factory worker who had sent an open letter to officers of the official trade union asking them to "reorganize" his plant, where conditions had badly deteriorated. "He was sent to a mentally ill hospital," said Han. "This is the result for people who want to organize independent unions today."

Gap rally on Fifth Avenue: For those who cared to listen, labor spelled out globalization's dark side.
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Gap rally on Fifth Avenue: For those who cared to listen, labor spelled out globalization's dark side.

After the forum, the trade unionists walked (police officials prohibited them from marching) through a steady drizzle to 54th and Fifth Avenue to protest across the street from the Gap. Cops shepherded the protesters into metal pens, and the unionists waved their "What About the Workers?" signs and yelled encouragingly to leaders who addressed them. Those pictures were duly recorded in all newspapers and on television, thus providing the photographic backdrop to stories about the "trivial" protests being waged in New York's streets.

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