State's Human Rights Guy Needs to Man Up Fast

I don't know about you, but it seems like it's been forever waiting for President Obama's team to get settled-in at State. Now that Michael Posner has been officially installed as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), it's about time we get started down the road to righting a whole slew of global wrongs. (In addition, I can't wait to see what brainiacs like Samantha Power ( ) can accomplish over at the National Security Council.) First on Posner's to-do list should be knocking some corporate heads together, a global crowd-pleaser if done right.

How can it be that Americans are fighting on the border of Pakistan (where we're sending a bunch of A.I.D. dollars) yet corporations that depend on American consumers are trampling Pakistanis' trade union rights ? And how about all of those Pakistanis keeping the rich Gulf States humming along? Even before the global downturn, things were getting rather nasty there . Don't we, as the global leader in petrol chug-a-lugging, have a stick to wield there, too?

Assistant Secretary Posner ought to be on a plane to Brussels tonight to catch the first-ever World Women's Conference , entitled "Decent Work, Decent Life for Women". There he should outline the ways in which workers are grievously disadvantaged in the global economy. Activists across the globe would be thrilled to hear an American calling into question such neoliberal tenets as the "flexible" workforce and the necessary "reform" of national labor codes -- these two together have opened the door to a noxious insecurity of employment.

Particularly egregious is the recent study funded and heavily influenced by the World Bank. Its report concludes that workers have to sacrifice even more than they have already in the name of economic growth. Organized as the Commission on Growth and Development , it made the astonishing discovery that the developing world's workers are over protected. The report includes a discussion about how governments need to "mollify the influential minority of workers" in the formal, wage-paying sector. Hence the need for "special zones" with reduced protections -- at best, somewhere in between the formal sector and "informal" destitution. The overall findings were praised in a Wall Street Journal article arguing that "there is room for countries to ape the Chinese model." A 2007 Brookings Institution publication similarly prescribes "ease of hiring and firing" as a primary "condition for maximizing growth."

It is clear that a new architecture of rights must be erected, beginning with a no-nonsense survey of current practices. Every labor attaché or labor reporting officer at an American embassy should compile the following facts: Has the country signed International Labor Organization Convention 81 (Labor Inspection)? If so, when is the last time a report was sent to Geneva? How many labor inspectors are there? How many factory inspections were done last year? What is the number of violations found? How many prosecutions started? How many back pay awards were made? Similarly, on the environmental side, statistics need to be collected on factories visited, citations, and types of hazardous waste. And our attachés should also map out the bureaucratic chain of command, with names of responsible local officials and an account of who reports to whom. U.S.-based companies importing more that $50 million worth of goods should have to post these findings on their corporate Web sites -- in both English and the local language -- for every country in which they have more than three contract factories.

All the inspection/enforcement statistics should be folded into a matrix maintained by a nongovernmental organization working under a several-year grant from the State Department's DRL. Alongside the raw numbers, wiki-style narratives should be included on such issues as freedom for NGOs operating in the labor sector, labor history, recent strikes, opinions on the adequacy of the minimum wage, academic papers on all these issues, and contact information for unions and activist groups. Such a program would make possible a global dialogue about key issues.

So, if we discomfit some big Democratic campaign contributors, the public diplomacy gains of being on the side of the little guys (including -- wink, wink -- tens of thousands of Pakistanis sending remittances home) are priceless.