Sunday 30 September 2012

The Newsroom: Finally Great Political Television

These past couple of weeks my husband and I have been watching season 1 of a cable television show, The Newsroom. This is great political television, based on real events shortly after they occur: for example, Obama’s assassination of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 (leading to an interesting discussion between my husband and me: why wasn’t Bin Laden arrested and put on trial? Why wasn’t the press allowed to see his body?)
Retrieved from
This program consistently raises questions that television is usually too frightened to address, even the US Public Broadcasting System. Last night in the episode I watched, the news anchor, a character called Will McAvoy, asks why baseball players can be indicted for perjury if they lie to a Congressional Committee, but Presidential candidates aren’t indicted for perjury if they lie to the American people. Good question. The Republicans are trying to get more of the female vote despite their anti-abortion and even anti-birth control policies (shades of the 1950s). According to the Economist, they claim that 92 % of the job losses under Obama’s Presidency were women’s jobs. But the Economist says this isn’t so: there are only 29,000 fewer “women’s” jobs than when Obama took over. And even these losses were causes in large part by the Republicans’ cutting stimulus packages to local governments, causing job losses in education.
In another segment the anchor asks a fictional spokesman for Mitt Romney how exactly Romney’s marriage has been adversely affected by gay marriage. This is a question I have often asked: how exactly does gay marriage adversely affect straight marriages? I live in a country that’s had gay marriage since 2006, and as far as I know not a single heterosexual marriage has been endangered in any way. I did once see a gay man from California claim on television that he and his partner were threatening the straight marriages on his street, because ever since they moved onto the block, the wives had been criticizing their husbands for not keeping their houses in as good repair as the gay couple! But that’s the only adverse effect I ever heard of.
In yet another segment of The Newsroom, the economics reporter has a running battle with the producer over air time. The economics reporter wants to report on Congress’ unwillingness to raise the US government’s debt ceiling which, if you can remember back to 2011, threatened another collapse of the US economy. According to my economist husband, if the US had not raised its debt ceiling it would have had to default on its bonds. This would have increased future investor uncertainty, because of the added risk that it would default in the future: to counter that, the US would have had to offer higher interest on its future bonds.
Meantime, the producer is forced to devote time to a case of a cute little (white) two-year-old girl allegedly murdered by her mother. Finally, a character comes on the TV and recites statistics on the extent of child disappearances and murders, and points out that equally horrific murders of black children go un-noticed by the media.
All these episodes are intelligently written, serious looks at what is wrong with US politics and mass media. I could do without the hysterical outbursts by the female lead, as if women executives can’t always be businesslike, but must occasionally revert to their “innate” emotional characters. Otherwise, The Newsroom is great television.
Reference: “Battle of the Sexes,” Economist, September 15, 2012, p. 25.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?

Should Labour Rights be Human Rights?
The other day I was teaching my first class on human rights for the fall 2012 term, leading my class on a quick march through the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). One of my students questioned whether labour rights should be included as human rights. Article 23, 4 of the UDHR specifies that “Everyone has the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” Article 8 of the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights further specifies that everyone has the right to form trade unions and join the trade union of his choice. It also ensure the right to strike, though it modifies it by saying the right to strike must be “exercised in conformity with the laws of the particular country.”
At my current place of employment, Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, where I have worked since 2003, I am a member of a union. I don’t agree with everything the union decides, but I am grateful for its protection and for the long hours that union executives put in negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions. From 1976 until 2003 I worked at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. There as well, executives of the Faculty Association put in long hours negotiating our pay, benefits and working conditions, but because we were not unionized we could not threaten to strike. I also remember as a young faculty member feeling constrained about what I could say at faculty association meetings because the vice-Presidents and Deans—effectively my bosses—could attend the meetings.
When my student questioned labour rights, another said that perhaps they were useful rights in the past but were no longer necessary. But it seems to me that they are more necessary than ever before. As union membership rates decline in Canada and the US, so also many more people are forced to rely on poorly paid jobs. Adults supporting families often work at two or three poorly-paid, non-unionized part-time jobs. Without unions, employees can’t negotiate for higher wages or for enough hours to entitle them to benefits such as supplementary health insurance. This is one of the major reasons why inequality is widening in Western countries. Its’ not just that the rich are getting richer: it’s that members of the middle class are falling into the ranks of the insecurely employed. Meantime, the stable industrial working class is declining and many of the people who used to work in unionized industries can’t find new jobs. Even highly educated people in high-tech jobs are vulnerable to market fluctuations with little protection, without unions to negotiate conditions for them.
And labour rights are not only necessary in the West. They are even more necessary as a result of globalization. The new industrial workers in export processing zones often live in appalling conditions in company compounds and work extremely long hours especially in periods of high demand for the products they make, as Naomi Klein has documented in her book No Logo.  Women workers are often subject to sexual harassment, even rape, and they are fired if they are pregnant. Recently  hundreds of workers died in a clothing factory fire in Karachi, Pakistan. According to The Economist (September 15, p. 7), "The building apparently had no emergency exits, and the windows were covered with metal screens." This was similar to the Triangle Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 in which over a hundred women and girls died, and which helped to strengthen the American labour movement.
So labour rights aren’t old-fashioned rights, as my student suggested. They are urgently needed all over the world, as more and more people are employed in light industry and service jobs. We need international unions for employees of McDonald’s, or Starbucks, or Wal-Mart. And we need laws mandating that employers must consult the representatives of unions when they make major decisions. The desire for profit must not be allowed to completely over-ride the well-being of workers, any more than it is allowed to over-ride the well-being of consumers.
Economies can still evolve and prosper even when there are strong trade unions. Indeed, they will be more prosperous because workers will also be consumers. This doesn’t mean trade unions are always in the right and that their judgements should never be questioned, but it does mean that they are necessary to preserve human rights.

Note: When I originally posted this blog, I said the recent factory fire was in Bangladesh, not Pakistan.  My apologies.

Another note: On November 25, 2012, there was a fire in a textile factory in Bangladesh. Many women died.

Yet another note. In mid-April, 2013 an estimated 400 garment workers died in Bangladesh when a building collapsed. Inspectors had warned the owners of the building the day before the collapse that there was a crack in the structure, and it was unsafe. The owners told the workers to go to work anyway. As I write this (April 29, 2013) one building owner has been arrested while trying to flee to India.

The low-budget Canadian chain, Joe Fresh (part of Canada's food giant, Loblaws) bought clothes from the factory where the 400 workers died, so now ther's a lot of discussion in the Canadian press about what concerned Canadians should do.  I agree with those commentators who say we shouldn't boycott Bangladeshi-made products; despite terrible working conditions, long hours, and extremely low pay, many Bangladeshi workers, especially women, are better off with these jobs than without.  But we should pressure Loblaws to oblige its suppliers to pay their workers more and ensure better working conditions.
Reference: Naomi Klein, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2000)

Tuesday 11 September 2012

North Korean Slave Labour
Camp 25 in the North-East of North Korea as seen from a satellite in May 2012.  The facility has significantly increased in size since 2003 with a reported prisoner population of 5,000 and with presumed more set to arrive soon.  Solid blue lines represent solid walls and dotted lines represent perimeter fences.
Retrieved from
In this morning’s Globe and Mail (Toronto), reporter Mark MacKinnon has an article on North Korean slave labour in Vladivostok, the site of the recent APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) meeting.  North Korean workers are common in the Vladivostok construction industry, which according to MacKinnon underwent a $20 billion overhaul before the APEC meeting. MacKinnon interviewed a North Korean worker named Babai, who claims that his pay is much better than in North Korea itself, even though he himself never sees it, despite working 12-15 hour days. Instead, an official from the Korean Workers’ Party collects his pay and sends it back to the North Korean government. Meantime, Babai and other North Korean workers live in  seemingly abandoned apartments and even in an abandoned underground bomb shelter. North Korea is so blatant about this slavery that it even advertises its workers on the Russian equivalent of Craigslist!
I wonder how many of the officials who attended the APEC meeting knew that much of the revitalization of Vladivostok is a result of North Koreans slave labour. Babai and his co-workers are slaves: they are not paid, they cannot leave their jobs, and they are rented out by their owner, the government of North Korea. North Korea has quite a habit of renting out its slave labourers to other countries, including Bulgaria, China, Iraq, Kuwait and Mongolia, according to Human Rights Watch. I’ve written an article. “State Enslavement in North Korea” which can be found here, or here 
There is little we can do about slavery inside North Korea. An estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people are imprisoned in concentration camps where they produce raw materials and industrial goods for export to earn hard currency, without pay and often on sub-starvation rations. The North Koreans believe in imprisoning three generations of any alleged criminal’s family, so many of these slave labourers are elderly or children. The amount of food they are given depends on how much they produce, so there’s a downward spiral leading to death by starvation: the less you produce, the less you eat, the less you eat, the less you produce, etc. until you die. These prisoners also produce luxury goods for the party √©lite and the military, and work in mines, quarries, and nuclear facilities. Obviously, they are not issued protective clothing, nor are they allowed days off or rest. Prisoners also perform hard labour by hand, repairing roads or pushing train cars, because North Korea doesn’t have enough functioning machinery. For more on North Korea, see my post on July 27, 2012 reviewing Blaine Harden’s book, Escape from Camp 14.
But even if we can’t stop slavery within North Korea, we can stop North Korean state slavers from renting out slaves to other countries. Slavery has been illegal under international law since 1926, and slavery is a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Yet the Russian government colludes with North Korea to import these workers. The Russian government and all others who “hire” North Koreans through their governments should stop this immediately. And the Russian government should advise local officials and private contractors that they must immediately cease renting these slaves from the North Koreans, or risk arrest.  In the meantime, I wonder if any of the APEC participants will care enough, even in retrospect, to condemn the Russian officials who tolerate this slavery.
Mark MacKinnon, “How Unpaid North Korean labour helped Russia welcome the world,” The Globe and Mail, (Toronto), September 11, 2012, pp. A1 and A19.
Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann, “State Enslavement in North Korea” submitted to Joel Quirk and Annie Bunting, eds. Slavery, Human Rights and Development (working title). Available on-line at or at Genocide Watch,, or contact me at for a copy.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Republicans, Community and Hypocrisy

Last week I dedicated three evenings to watching the Republican National Convention. Like many Americans and Canadians, I was appalled.
One theme of the Convention was achieving the “American dream” by your own hard work, without help from anyone else. Another theme was how small business is the backbone of the American economy. Speaker after speaker recounted stories of immigration, hard work, building a small business without relying on any government help. The Convention’s theme was “We Built It,” in reaction to President Obama’s reminder that in fact, no one can build any business in America without government-provided infrastructure such as roads and bridges (and, I would add, sewage systems and clean water, responsible for much North American prosperity).
The first speaker I watched was an African-American woman whose parents immigrated from Haiti, and who by dint of hard work—or so she said—had built up her own business. To me, it seemed that the implied message to African-Americans was “I succeeded, why can’t you: Get off your butts (welfare) and work hard like me.”

Sher Valenzuela speaking in Philadelphia, 4 April 2012
Retrieved from
Another speaker was one Sher Valenzuela, who talked about how she and her husband had built up an upholstery business that now employed 70 workers. No information about how her workers felt about her, how much they were paid, whether they can bargain collectively, etc. Valenzuela implied that she and her husband had built up their business entirely without government aid. But Nicholas Kristof reported in the New York Times that in fact, the Valenzuelas received $2 million in loans from the Small Business Administration, and another $15 million in noncompetitive government contracts. Valenzuela herself mentioned that some of her business was to build unspecified equipment for the Israeli army, leading one to wonder what kind of upholstery the Israelis need. So in fact, taxpayers paid Valenzuela and her husband $17 million to help their small business.
Back in 1995 I wrote a book, Human Rights and the Search for Community. I argued that there was a significant social trend in the US toward what I called “reactionary conservatism.” Reactionary conservatives look backward to a mythical past, stressing the values of family, religion, and community. I’ve  wondered since then whether I exaggerated, but it turns out I was too charitable. Republicans appear to be interested in family but not community. Families are supposed to hang together to help each other out in times of trouble: It’s OK to draw on your religious community too (although in the Republican world, the only religious communities worth mentioning are Christian or Jewish). But those who can’t make it on their own, the poor, the downtrodden, the ill and the troubled, are responsible for their own fate. If their families and their religious communities can’t help them out, too bad.
Two speakers at the convention, both members of Mitt Romney’s Mormon congregations, talked about how generous he had been to them when they had sick and dying children. I have no doubt he was. But his generosity did not extend to all those people whom his own company, Bain Capital, put out of work. Nor does his, or Republicans’, sense of community seem to extend to anyone outside their own narrow circle.
Paul Ryan (L) and Mitt Romney (R)
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, retrieved from
There are lots of reasons to oppose Republicans. As a woman who took part in Canada in the 1960s and 70s in the struggle for access to birth control and abortion, I am appalled at their attitudes to these fundamental rights, without which women are slaves to their own bodies. The Republican “community” excludes not only sexually-independent women, but also gays and lesbians, non-striving immigrants, the unemployed who can’t get back on their feet, and all those who aren’t blessed by good fortune, good health, or everything else you need to “make it” in a competitive society.
I used to joke that given its imperial influence, the entire world should be allowed to vote in US elections. Then, I was thinking about protecting non-Americans from the US, but now I think everyone in the world should be allowed to vote in US elections to protect Americans from the Republicans.  

Nicholas D. Kristof, “The Secret Weapon: All of Us”, the New York Times (distributed by the Hamilton Spectator, Canada), Sept. 1, 2012, p. 15.
Rhoda E. Howard, Human Rights and the Search for Community, Boulder: Westview Press, 1995, pp. 176-81.