Sunday, May 11, 2008

Can Workers' Conditions Abroad Be Monitored?

Recently Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former labor secretary, was doing a Q&A on the Freakonomics blog, and he picked a question I submitted.

Q: As an econ professor and Democrat I’m still having trouble with the protectionist talk of the two candidates. Do you think Obama is handling trade issues properly or should he be more pro-free trade?
A: While it makes sense to argue in favor of labor and environmental standards in trade deals (so long as they’re on a sliding scale, and poorer nations don’t have to reach the same standard as richer nations), I don’t think the candidates should feed the current frenzy against free trade.

I think Reich’s answer is a good one. I agree there needs to be some sort of labor standards and at the very least people who purchase products in the U.S. need to able to figure out the labor standards under which the products were produced. I have not given much thought to international monitoring. However, I came across a good article written by a former factory inspector.* Not surprisingly it is a tough job, and factory owners work hard to hide poor conditions.

As the article’s writer says “Monitoring by itself is meaningless. It only works when the company that's commissioning it has a sincere interest in improving the situation.” If that is the case , then without some government intervention there will be not motivation for companies to monitor their abroad factories.
I’m not sure where the balance lies between labor and environmental trade standards, but it is important to have a view of the situation as a whole, and part of that is the difficulty of actually enforcing any law.

* I came across this article through Brijit, a new web service that summarizes articles for many publications in 100 words or less. H/t to Megan Macardle for pointing to this service as an idea generator for blogs.

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1 comment:

Hilary said...

The article you link to reminded me of a discussion we had over at the Geek Buffet a few months ago about Chinese factories when the Mattel crisis broke. We were focused more on the safety of the products produced rather than the conditions of the workers producing them, but I have a feeling the two are often related.

I think labor conditions (and factory waste) are one of the slippery slopes of globalization, because many of the costs are externalized, not allowing the price of an item to be a fair representation of its costs. And just because the leadership of a developing country is ready and willing to pimp out its people and resources, does that mean the rest of the world should let it do so indiscriminately? That is to say, what exactly does this "sliding scale" Reich speaks of look like?

Is it not a fundamentally racist flaw to allow citizens in foreign lands to labor and suffer under conditions lower than those we expect for our own workers? There must be a minimum labor standard enforceable across the entire world, that takes into account age, safety, freedom, wages and worker protections. Only then can we stop enjoying progress and profit through the exploitation of others and effectively take nations and multinationals to task for their infractions. I don't think many people have a problem with free trade if, in fact, another country produces something better/faster/more cheaply than another -- they have a problem with inequal equations resulting in policy shifts and job loss due to inaccurate comparisons of better/faster/more cheaply.