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Do corporations Need Conscience or Freedom?

It appears that calls to help workers don't apply beyond US borders

PAT BUCHANAN'S stirring attacks against free trade and corporations have earned him the label of "economic populist" and the votes of many displaced American factory workers.

Somehow, a former acolyte of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became the only candidate to have noticed that many Americans feel insecure about the economy. By attacking NAFTA and GATT, he offers a simple explanation for why the stock market has soared while many people work harder and harder for less.

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Mr. Buchanan's pitch as a friend of the working man, however, like much in presidential politics, has been heavier on rhetoric than on substance.

Though he rails at corporations and tailors his message to working people, you won't hear him promoting concrete steps to make companies treat their workers better.

At home, Buchanan strongly opposes ideas like raising the minimum wage. But although he promises to scrap free-trade agreements because they hurt workers, he never talks about pushing multinational corporations to respect labor laws and human rights abroad.

Sweatshops for US goods

Take Haiti, for example. The conditions in 15 Haitian factories that produce garments for US companies are detailed in a startling new report by the National Labor Committee (NLC), a New York-based group that monitors workers' rights here and abroad. Among them is the Quality Garments shop in Port-au-Prince, where workers earn as little as 12 cents an hour while producing Mickey Mouse pajamas for the Walt Disney Company. The pajamas are sold in the United States at Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, and Sears.

At 10 of the shops examined by the NLC, workers earn less than Haiti's 30-cents-per-hour legal minimum wage, which is itself the lowest wage rate in the hemisphere. What happens inside the factories smacks of the 19th century.

At Quality Garments, for example, the workers, most of whom are women, hunch over antiquated sewing machines, laboring eight to 10 hours a day, Monday through Saturday (Sunday as well if there are orders to fill) in a dimly lit factory choked with dust and lint because of poor ventilation.

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Though a virulent critic of free trade, Buchanan does not harp on such matters.

His miracle answer to economic integration is to erect stiff tariffs and fences along the US border to stanch the flow of foreign goods and immigrants.

This regressive vision portrays the victims of the global economic processes he describes - foreigners and immigrants - as the beneficiaries, leaving unaddressed the corporate abuses that make sweatshops a reality of the late 20th century.

One company keeps its word

The real problem is not trade in and of itself, but corporations that conduct trade with no regard for human rights and workers.

Disney, Wal-Mart, and J.C. Penney, for example, all publish corporate "codes of conduct" promising that their contractors will provide wages and benefits in compliance with the laws of the country in which they are doing business. None live up to their word. As Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the NLC, urges: "We should ask J.C. Penney and Walt Disney: What happened to their so-called corporate codes of conduct? And why haven't their codes been translated into Creole and posted in their contractors' [Haitian] factories? Or are their codes just more public relations?"

The only company that has an acceptable answer is The Gap, Inc., which last December signed an agreement with the NLC granting access to independent human rights observers to monitor conditions in their contractors' plants. Following pressure from labor, consumer, and student groups, The Gap also agreed to translate its corporate code of conduct (human rights guarantees) into the native languages of its workers, post the code in all factories making Gap clothing, and distribute it to workers.

Buchanan gets away with never discussing strengthening workers' rights and placing tough standards on corporations - and he remains the sole economic "populist" in the field - only because none of his Republican rivals do either. As they debate the relative merits of free trade and protectionism, companies like Disney and J.C. Penny are allowed to make a killing while paying 12-cent-an-hour wages.

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