May Day Fails its Promise to Workers

Virtually no one in the United States celebrates May Day. Yet International Workers’ Day all started here, and we continue to export the violence faced by the workers it commemorates. Workers who sew our clothes, grow our flowers, and mine the metals used in our cars and cell phones are still experiencing the same problems confronted by U.S. workers a century ago.

May Day grew out of protests in Haymarket Square in May 1886 around the push for an eight-hour workday. Chicago police violently dispersed the protesters. An anonymous bomb sparked a police riot and resulted in the shooting of several people. The U.S. government then used the incident as an excuse to quell further labor dissent.

Organizing in support of decent labor laws was once a life-threatening proposition in the United States. It still is, in places like Colombia, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan. Where civilian governments fail to exercise effective control over military and paramilitary groups, it’s the law of the jungle for workers — but just business as usual for investors.

Colombia and Philippines

On April 19, while President Barack Obama was shaking hands with Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s National Guard were violently assaulting mine workers for a U.S. coal company. The workers were engaged in a peaceful demonstration in solidarity with a worker who had died on the job on March 23, and to demand enforcement of better safety and health protections in the workplace. National Guardsmen surrounded the meeting with tanks, injured several workers, and detained the union leaders.

In the meantime, on the same weekend halfway around the world in the Philippines, courageous Filipino workers in the country’s export-processing zones held a sympathy strike in support of 33 garment factory union leaders. These organizers have been in hiding since March 17, when the government issued a warrant for their arrest, posting criminal charges against mainly women workers for defending themselves from a violent assault by police on their picket-line. Masked men in military uniforms wielding guns and other lethal weapons violently dispersed the striking workers and threatened to kill them. Yet it’s the workers who face criminal charges by the Philippine government.

Our trade agreements with these countries could help, but they don’t. Agreements like the proposed U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement fail to tackle the political realities in countries where violence is the norm. It’s time that countries meet certain labor preconditions before trade agreements are even considered to make sure that the Haymarket Square riots aren’t repeated around the world.

Conditioning Trade

First, as a precondition to signing a trade pact, the United States needs to apply a means test to determine who really controls the governments of our trade partners — the civilian authorities or the military.

To stop companies and militaries or paramilitaries from acting in collusion with one another, transparency of payments measures and other anti-corruption laws in place must be enforced. The United States must, as Human Rights Watch has urged, investigate the links between U.S. companies and the paramilitaries, and punish those with such links.

Finally, and only if the other preconditions are in effect, human rights norms need to be in place to provide final and uncompromising safeguards to those who face violence and to ensure that the perpetrators can be brought to justice.

Even with preconditions in place, workers around the world still don’t enjoy the right to an eight-hour work day or even basic protections of labor law. In many countries, including Colombia and the Philippines, a weak labor code has undermined union members’ rights to collective bargaining and made it extremely difficult for workers to form unions. Subcontracted labor recruitment is increasingly common around the world, where middlemen hired by large companies recruit, transport, and distribute workers’ wages. These contracted workers find themselves in a legal loophole as they aren’t entitled to coverage under the country’s basic labor laws. Weak labor codes also criminalize workers’ most powerful collective bargaining tool: their right to assemble freely. Labor rights clauses in trade agreements or corporate codes cannot be enforced unless companies and governments find ways to measure these forms of repression.

Socially conscious U.S. consumers also have a role to play in supporting higher labor standards. Strong product certification programs can contribute to the protection of worker rights in the products we buy. Since unions are the strongest and most effective way to build worker empowerment and enforce strong labor standards, all labor certification programs must prioritize workplace organizing rights. In the newly released “Roadmap for Fair Product Certification and Standard Setting Initiatives,” the International Labor Rights Forum shows how consumers can use their purchasing power to enforce labor rights where governments do not.

We should commemorate May Day this year by remembering the Haymarket workers and the sad reality that organizing is a life-threatening proposition in so may parts of the globe, from Colombia to the Philippines and many workplaces in between.

Bama Athreya is the executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.