GENEVA — The challenges of outsourcing in a globalized economy, and allegations of labor abuses in textile and apparel exporting countries, such as China, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, came under the spotlight at the annual conference of the International Labor Organization.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor organization, told a gathering of 4,000 delegates, “The U.S. has lost 3.5 million good, middle-class manufacturing jobs since 1998, more than half of them to companies losing market share or offshoring production to cheaper places.”

Sweeney said economic studies by distinguished economists and think tanks show that “as the challenge of offshoring spreads to services, as many as 28 [million] to 52 million American jobs are at risk.” He said the effects are also seen in many poor countries, as companies threaten or actually shift production to China, where workers’ rights to organize are not respected.

He told labor ministers from 178 countries that globalization does not have to reduce living standards, but added, “As policies are currently unbalanced between the interests of corporations and workers as they are today, a drop is inevitable. We need the right rules for globalization to ensure a rise to the top and not a race to the bottom.”

Trade union leaders from developing countries voiced similar concerns. Indonesian workers delegate Rekson Siliban said national laws should be adjusted to the workers’ needs “instead of openly being dictated by the needs of market forces.”

Panus Thailuan, speaking on behalf of Thai employees, singled out the problem of “double-standard employment” in his country, where “the subcontracted workers receive lower salary without any fringe benefits … these workers receive low income and employers take advantage of them.”

However, the views of employers’ groups were at variance with the criticisms of the labor leaders.

Chen Lantong, vice president of China’s Enterprise Confederation, speaking for that nation’s employers, said globalization “has accelerated the flow and optimized the allocation and distribution of capital, technology and knowledge in the world.” This movement, he said, “has brought new opportunities for economic and social development of various countries.”

Sarthak Behura, chairman of the council of Indian employers, said, “India strongly supports fair globalization, and is reaping the material, technical and intellectual fruits of globalization. We see a collective energy of enormous magnitude across all sectors in the country, which are indices of excellent economic performance.”

This story first appeared in the June 13, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions annual survey, however, documented that serious violations of workers’ rights continued to be widespread in 2005. It said 115 trade unionists were murdered, 1,600 were subjected to violent assaults, 9,000 were arrested, 10,000 were fired for union involvement and 1,700 were detained.

“The death toll was slightly lower in 2005 than the previous year, but we are nevertheless witnessing increasingly severe violence and hostility against working people who stand up for their rights,” said Guy Ryder, general secretary of the ICFTU, which has 236 affiliated organizations in 154 countries and territories, with a membership of 155 million.

The report listed Bangladesh as “one of the worst countries for trade union rights violations in the Asian region” and noted collective protests by textile workers resulted in fierce retaliation by police that left hundreds injured. Violations and anti-union incidents were also widespread against apparel workers in Sri Lanka, noted the report.

In 2005, there was no letup in the repression of independent trade unions in China, the report said, noting that dozens of trade unionists remained in prison and alleged that authorities “brutally repressed protests” in many locations.

“The millions of workers who are responsible for China’s economic miracle are still denied even the most basic right to organize without interference and oppression,” Ryder said.

Tian Chenping, China’s Minister of Labor & Social Security, told the conference the country “has the largest pool of labor resources, with a 920 million working-age population.” Between 2001 and 2005, Tian said, “over 18 million laid-offs were reemployed.”

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