labor

ucdAmong the many sobering materials that my students and I have examined in this semester’s Children & International Law seminar is an article entitled “Why Are Children Working in American Tobacco Fields?,” which Gabriel Thompson published last year in the the Nation. It recounts the lives of preteens and young teens who toil in North Carolina, 60 hours a week for $7.25 an hour. Most were born outside the United States, and many suffer nicotine poisoning from their labor. U.S. laws have regulated child labor for the last three-quarters of a century, yet even today those laws place only loose restrictions on the agricultural sector.

The article exposes a gap in child protection –  one that will receive further examination when academics and policymakers take part in “Confronting Child Labor in the Global Agricultural Supply Chains,” a symposium to be held April 4 at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. Cosponsors include the law school’s California International Law Center (of which I’m proud to have served as the founding Director) and its Journal of International Law and Policy.

According to the conference program, speakers will include Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor, along with a host of experts drawn from the private sector, academia, and nongovernmental organizations.

Details and registration here.

sotu2014Despite the best efforts of pundits and D.C. PR, the State of the Union address this year seemed, well, small.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t watch the speech this year – 1st time in a long time. Just wasn’t up for TV anchors’ “this is Washington’s Oscars” spin as the government’s still-mostly-men file in. (credit for video screengrab) Nor for the up-close-and-personal vignettes that pepper SOTU no less than they soon will Sochi.

As for the text of the speech itself – except for the well-deserved celebration of an end to certain health care injustices – it paled in the gloss of my high-def tablet screen.

President Barack Obama put impressive force into his demand for higher wages for Americans at the bottom of the income rung, to a reverse in the trend of growing economic inequality, to a guarantee of a good job. Impressive, that is, absent the deflating reality revealed on one’s calculator. Obama’s centerpiece solution was a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. That would bring the annual income of a person who works full-time and gets paid vacation (both unlikely, at this wage scale) to a grand total of $21,008.00. (Note that this is higher than the current income floor.) Given the high cost of living in the United States, one could almost hear the low-wage earner mutter,

‘That and a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card will get me a cup of coffee.’

As the President noted, the mutterer well may be a woman. He said:

‘Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.’

Well, yes, it is, and the focus on this issue was inspiring. Or would have been, if Obama’s stated solutions – “equal sbapay for equal work,” “a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent” – weren’t as old as the women’s movement itself. (image credit) Consider this web account:

Susan B. Anthony‘s paper The Revolution, first published in 1868, advocated an eight-hour day and equal pay for equal work.’

In his speech Obama sounded an alarm about “the lives that gun violence steals from us each day,” as he has many times before. (Prior posts here, here, and here) His promise “to keep trying, with or without Congress,” served as a reminder of the difficulty of change.

“Diplomacy” was the SOTU foreign policy buzzword. That is welcome, but did not fully settle the mind given the tense nature of most of the situations mentioned – Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan. One was struck, too, by the geographic lumping-together of our globe. Joining Africa as an apparently single-country? “The Americas.”

Let’s hope the President’s assertions of optimism prove better founded than this take on yesterday’s address.

shipsRomantic allusions to Years Before the Mast aside, working aboardship is hard labor. That work gained more protection today, as the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006, aimed “to secure the right of all seafarers to decent employment,” entered into force.

Promulgated within the framework of the International Labour Organization, the convention collects rights and norms contained in many earlier treaties. MLC 2006, as it’s been dubbed, complements 3 treaties advanced within the framework of another intergovernmental entity, the International Maritime Organization. These 3 are; SOLAS, the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea; MARPOL, the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships; and STCW, the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. (photo credit)

In Article III of the newly-in-force Maritime Labour Convention, member states pledge to respect 4 “fundamental rights”:

► “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”
► “elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour”
► “effective abolition of child labour”
► “elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation”

Article IV, meanwhile, proclaims that each member state “shall ensure, within the limits of its jurisdiction,” what’s been called a seafarers’ “bill of rights” –  rights to:

► “a safe and secure workplace that complies with safety standards”
► “fair terms of employment”
► “decent working and living conditions on board ship”
► “health protection, medical care, welfare measures and other forms of social protection”

Entry into force followed upon the recent ratification by a 48th state, the United Kingdom. The United States has not ratified, but 3 out of 5 permanent members of the Security Council have (France and Russia as well as Britain). Eight of the top 10 flag states – leaders in the registry of ships – also have joined: Bahamas, Cyprus, Greece, Liberia, Malta, Marshall Islands, Panama, and Singapore. (China and Hong Kong are the 2 leaders not listed.) Other ratifying states include island countries as large as Australia and as small as Barbados, and landlocked lands like Switzerland.

elsieAs readers who’ve followed me from IntLawGrrls blog to this new site well know, I’ve devoted much time in recent years to honoring foremothers – women whose life stories are sources of inspiration today,  for women and men alike. Many foremothers were nominated by IntLawGrrls contributors; others came to the fore in our on-this-day or in-passing features; still others, in the research that others and I have done respecting women at Nuremberg and Tokyo post-World War II trials. Some women – for example, the Irish pirate Gráinne Ní Mháille, known to English speakers as Grace O’Malley – have been famous for centuries. Often as not, however, history had obscured these women. It’s been rewarding to bring their stories to light.

It’s a pleasure today to write of Elsie Parrish, a foremother of every working person.

A litigant before the U.S. Supreme Court, hers is a surname that’s found its way into many a law student’s outline. Yet it may not ring a bell, for the student is more likely to recall the landmark 1937 decision – West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish – by the first words in that caption. That’s too bad: as Dr. Helen J. Knowles, a Grinnell College political scientist, demonstrates in the article she’s just published in the Journal of Supreme Court History, Parrish’s personal story, and the emphasis put on it by local media, enrich any account of the case. And many accounts exist, given that Parrish’s case marked a watershed in U.S. history: by a 5-4 vote, the Court approved a New Deal-era minimum-wage law, reversing a long trend and putting a stop to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Court.

Starting it all, the article points out, was Elsie Parrish. In 1935, she was a 30-something, twice-married, once-divorced, mother and grandmother who made her living by cleaning rooms in an upscale hotel in Wenatchee, Washington. (photo credit) When she lost her job and did not receive back wages in line with the state’s minimum-wage-for-women law, she sued. Two years later, she won her case.

Knowles’ article tells of the fight to the Supreme Court and relates interviews Parrish gave with local papers; to one, Parrish said:

‘I am so glad, not only for myself, but for all the women of the state who have been working for just whatever they could get.’

Of interest too is what Parrish, by then a septuagenarian, had to say when America’s 2d feminist wave was at full crest. Interviewer Adela Rogers St. Johns quoted Parrish as follows in her book Some Are Born Great 187 (1972):

‘I was surprised when nobody paid much attention at the time, and none of the women running around and yelling about Lib and such have paid any since.’

In Parrish’s own words, again to Rogers St. John, here’s why she sued her former employers:

‘I had to do it. What they did wasn’t right.’

Acknowledging the ambivalence of some feminists, for the reason that the 1937 victory was cloaked in words of judicial paternalism, Knowles takes issue with Parrish’s claim that “nobody paid attention.” After all,  the case remains a landmark. Indeed, the decision in Parrish paved the way for legislation regulating the workplace for all working women – and men, too.  Knowles’ article, and other accounts in recent years, begin to restore, to the popular understanding of the case, the story of the woman who brought the suit.