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Reviewed by:
  • Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists
  • Mahmood Monshipouri (bio)
Shareen Hertel , Unexpected Power: Conflict and Change among Transnational Activists, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University press, 2006, pp. 153, plus Index.

The gap between local and international activism has presented problems for local human rights, understandings, and priorities. Unexpected Power challenges the standard explanations of transnational advocacy and norms in evolution by arguing that less materially and politically powerful activists have managed to influence the way human rights were framed in the cases of Mexico and Bangladesh. Hertel attempts to tease out mechanisms—namely, blocking and backdoor moves—to demonstrate how people respond with alternative understandings to those posed by norms entrepreneurs. The volume's central conviction is the desire to make the world a better place for the workers, fortify their economic survival, and promote their dignity in the workplace.

The first case study examines child labor, child rights, and transnational advocacy in the case of Bangladesh. This chapter explains the process by which activists in Bangladesh blocked the central human rights message of the transnational campaign until the campaign's human rights frame evolved from a narrow, civil-political based definition of child labor as protection from harm, to a broader definition that embraced children's economic rights to education and basic income.1 The campaign began with the introduction of the Harkin bill on child labor in 1993. Named after Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, the bill threatened US government trade sanctions on any industry producing goods with child labor. It was backed by the launching of a consumer boycott organized by the US-based Child Labor Coalition in 1995, and terminated with the 1995 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between business, government, and UN agencies that brokered a three-year set of policy initiatives on child labor in the garment industry.2 [End Page 823]

In Bangladesh, a battle was shaping up in the early 1990s over how to determine the best interests of working children and how to define human rights in relation to those interests. Rosaline Costa, a former Bangladeshi nun, built alliances with American activists and their supporters in the US Congress and other sectors of US government. Despite her efforts to build a valuable union and NGO alliances in the United States, she failed to win many Bangladeshi activists to her cause. Costa was seen as a social pariah, was harassed by government security forces for bringing shame to her country, and was largely dismissed by other local activists.

Local activists' blocking ultimately played a stronger role than Costa's outside-in strategy in shaping the outcome of how children's rights norms evolved in this case. The anti-child labor campaign was launched largely from outside Bangladesh and was seen locally as both incompatible with local understandings and contradictory to local interests.3 Bangladeshi trade unions and women's rights NGOs particularly opposed this campaign and started lobbying against the bill. They blocked the Harkin bill campaign by asserting the primacy of physical integrity as a nonderogable right. They, in fact, tied protection of that right directly to analysis of economic right as well as vulnerability of child workers, as some children dismissed from work in the garment industry had gone into prostitution.4

Under pressure from local activists, the Child Labor Coalition (CLC) officially called off its boycott in 1995. Consequently, in 1989 the central, normative reference point of the CLC campaign moved from ILO Convention 138 on minimum age to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a standard that both Bangladeshi and US activists could embrace. The result was the passage in 1999 of ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which clearly distinguishes between the hazardous, exploitative form of child labor and other, acceptable types of child work.5 To be sure, the blocking moves helped transform normative discourse.

The chapter on Mexico deals with the cases of vulnerable pregnant workers employed by manufacturing plants, known as maquiladoras, along Mexico's northern border with the United States. Pregnant women are often not officially hired or are readily fired so that employers can avoid paying three months of maternity...


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