In October, I wrote about workers at the Chong Won garment factory in the Phillipines, who produce clothing for a number of retailers and brands, including Wal-Mart. Back then, workers were on strike defending their legal right to organize. Yesterday I caught up with Father Jose Dizon — “Father Joe” — a priest at the Workers’ Assistance Centre in Cavite, who has played a major role in supporting the workers’ efforts.(Naomi Klein wrote about Father Joe, and this organization, in her ground-breaking 1999 book No Logo.) Soft-spoken and cheerful, despite the grim situations we’re discussing, Father Joe is visiting the United States to testify before Congress about the dismal and deteriorating human rights situation in his country. I interviewed him at the United Nations, where he was attending a meeting of social justice-minded religious leaders. He said that factory management still refuses to negotiate with the workers’ union.
A February investigation of Chong Won by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) — the monitoring group founded by the student anti-sweatshop movement — found violations of minimum wage, forced overtime and many other laws. It also found that factory management had colluded with local authorities to retaliate violently against striking workers: indeed, the report states, “with respect to freedom of association, Chong Won’s misdeeds are among the most egregious and persistent that the WRC has encountered.”
As the factory’s most powerful customer, Wal-Mart could easily pressure management to respect the workers’ rights. In fact, the right to freedom of association is part of Wal-Mart’s own code of conduct for suppliers (a fact that many of its U.S. employees would find pretty darkly hilarious). Last fall, Father Joe and the workers met with representatives of Wal-Mart, who said they would pressure the management to do the right thing; he now thinks that they were “not serious.” The retailer has taken no action and workers now fear Wal-Mart might pull out altogether, instead of using its economic power to improve the situation. Says Father Joe, “We are just asking Wal-Mart to follow its own code of conduct with respect to the right of workers to collective bargaining.”