Reflections on ILRF's 20th Anniversary/Halloween Party
Bama Athreya, Executive Director, International Labor Rights Fund
Last Thursday, October 26 ILRF invited friends from far and wide to join us for a special evening to celebrate a very important moment both for reflection and for looking forward. Twenty years ago (in November, 1986), our founding Executive Director Pharis Harvey and two of his associates filed the original documents of incorporation for the International Labor Rights Fund (in those days, as some of our old friends will remember, the "International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund"). Pharis was with us for our celebration last Thursday evening, and shared with all of us his memories of how the original vision for the ILRF had come to him while he lay in a hospital bed, recuperating from a broken leg! Who could have foreseen what the next twenty years would bring?
ILRF has had the great privilege of participating in many, many victories over the past two decades, including the first industry-wide initiatives to tackle child labor through the Foul Ball campaign on soccer balls, and our work to establish the Rugmark Foundation; legislative victories in the form of new worker rights provisions in the Generalized System of Preferences, the investment guarantees of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and amendments to the Tariff Act of 1930; and the landmark legal victory in the Unocal case on behalf of forced laborers in Burma. The day to day fights can be frustrating and overwhelming, and it's refreshing to take a moment to look back on what has been achieved. Many of these victories were the result of many, many years of dogged advocacy; nothing was ever gained overnight. The Unocal case took eight years to make its way through US courts, but provided us with a groundbreaking precedent once we reached the end.
Unbelievably, ILRF has not only survived, but thrived in the current political environment. We are working under a US administration that is arguably the most corporate-cozy and labor-hostile that we have seen in over a century. The challenges are enormous, but our base of support both within the US and around the world is growing steadily.
For this and a host of other reasons, last year Terry Collingsworth (who has led the ILRF since Pharis' retirement in 2000) and I came to a decision that the litigation work deserved its own home. Terry is now suing the world's largest and most powerful multinational corporations on behalf of otherwise powerless victims in the developing world. His clients are victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by ExxonMobil, Walmart, Chevron, Nestle, Dyncorp and others. At our celebration last week, we announced the formal launch of a new legal defense fund to be established and led by Terry Collingsworth. The International Labor Rights Defenders will be a separate organization from the original ILRF, but we will continue to work closely together to promote our mutual and shared vision of a world where workers can obtain justice for violations of their fundamental rights. The organizations will be fully separate by the end of 2006.
As for ILRF itself, we have plenty of work to do on all fronts. At our celebration last Thursday we honored our partners from Colombia with whom we have worked long and hard on the CocaCola campaign; we were thrilled that Javier Correa from SINALTRAINAL was able to join us and say a few words as we prepare to launch new campaign work against Nestle corporation for its complicity in the murder of trade union leaders both in Colombia and in the Philippines. Also joining us was Kate Chen, a courageous Walmart supplier factory worker from China, who had just finished a month-long speaking tour around the United States, educating US consumers about working conditions in Chinese factories.
Finally, in keeping with the Halloween theme, we distributed Fair Trade trick-or-treat candy, provided by one of our favorite companies, Equal Exchange, to all partygoers! As some of you may know we've been working against the odds for over five years to push the world's largest commodity traders and chocolate companies to clean up the child labor in their cocoa supply chain. After five years, all we are getting from most of these companies is empty promises of some vague action to be taken sometime in future (for a more extended analysis of what the chocolate industry has and hasn't done, see my colleague Brian Campbell's excellent recent analysis on our website at www.laborrights.org ). However, for the first Halloween since our cocoa campaign started, our allies in the fair trade movement have succeeded in getting Fair Trade trick or treat candy onto supermarket shelves (well, some supermarket shelves anyway- we still have some work to do!) As a chocolate lover and a mother of two small trick-or-treaters, I can't tell you how delighted I am that kids around the United States will have a choice this Halloween to become ethical consumers. I am optimistic that the penetration of Fair Trade chocolate into the US market will give the big guys like Nestle and Hershey's a wake-up call and finally push them to take meaningful action. And if it doesn't . . . well, there's always litigation . . .