Global trade and the rights of workers

March 20, 1996|By Peter Hogness

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Pat Buchanan says that trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT are costing American workers their jobs. Lamar Alexander warns that Buchanan-style protectionism helped cause the Great Depression. The problem is, they're both right.

There is a solution to this dilemma, but you won't hear it from the presidential contenders or from Bill Clinton and other pro-NAFTA Democrats.

The world is with us

Much as Mr. Buchanan might want to, the global economy can't be wished away. Communications will only get faster. Production will only become more international. Our standard of living will depend even more on our relationships with other countries. Trying to reverse this trend is as futile as King Canute ordering the tide to turn around. The only question is whether the world's economies will integrate by bringing the bottom up, or by bringing the top down.

Free-trade advocates claim that jobs go overseas because America is changing from an industrial to an information economy.

In this view, some unskilled workers may get hurt by the transition, but for America as a whole it's not a bad deal. We get the good jobs, the Third World gets the bad jobs, and the damage suffered by American workers can be repaired through education and training.

But this rosy view misdiagnoses the problem. Export of American jobs to poorer countries is not limited to factory work. Increasingly, jobs in information services from airline ticket reservations to computer software design are being shipped overseas as well.

The Third World and Eastern Europe are showing that they can provide educated, skilled labor at a fraction of the wages to which college-educated Americans are accustomed. Even with the current wave of computer and telecommunications layoffs, information workers will soon look back on 1996 as a golden age of job security.

Contrary to Mr. Buchanan, the export of American jobs was not caused by NAFTA or GATT. It was going on long before those trade agreements were signed. NAFTA and GATT may have made matters worse, but they didn't cause the problem. The root cause is multinational corporations' hunger for cheap labor.

Korean example

It's not that foreign workers want to work for less. Given half a chance, they will push to bring their wages up.

In recent years South Korea went through an economic boom which was soon accompanied by a strike wave and a rise in real wages. One of the results was that South Korean garment manufacturers started looking for lower-wage countries in which to set up production, a search which ironically led them to Central America.

In countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, joining a union can be dangerous. It can lead not only to getting fired but to beatings, torture or death, often at the hands of soldiers trained and financed by the U.S. Multinational corporations, whether headquartered in New York or Seoul, have found this very convenient. While they disclaim responsibility for abuses, they still reap the benefits of depressed wages.

The U.S. Congress can't pass a law raising wages in Guatemala or China or Indonesia. What it can do is help workers in those countries to help themselves, by insisting that respect for workers' rights must be part of the structure of international trade.

Unfair trade practice

Violations of worker rights should be considered as much an unfair trade practice as piracy of software or movies, and the penalties should be at least as severe. While NAFTA and GATT mention worker rights in passing, their provisions are toothless. According to these trade agreements, making bootleg videotapes is a more serious crime than killing union members.

If access to the U.S. consumer market depended on respect for the right to organize and strike, you can bet that workers in poor countries would push their own wages up which would mean less export of U.S. jobs. We can't stop the growth of international trade and investment, nor should we want to. But we should make sure that it raises workers' living standards, here and abroad, instead of driving them down.

Race to the bottom

Trade without respect for worker rights means a race to the bottom that nobody wins, where there's always someone else who'll work for less. Pat Buchanan's protectionism, on the other hand, could produce a global trade war that would hurt U.S. workers more than NAFTA and GATT combined. A focus on workers' rights is a long-term approach, but it's the only practical way to preserve American jobs.

Peter Hogness is former director of the U.S.-Guatemala Labor Education Project and a former staff member of the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers' Union.

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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