With respect to trade and labor standards, many labor unions and labor activists such as the AFL-CIO have argued that the United States should promote improved labor protections in any country with which it negotiates a new agreement aimed at liberalizing trade. The International Labor Organization of the United Nations upholds a series of labor recommendations and conventions that are intended to be recognized everywhere in the world.
There is universal consensus that all countries must respect the following fundamental rights:
- Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
- Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor;
- Effective abolition of child labor; and
- Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
The International Labor Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, adopted in Geneva in 1998, stresses these principles in greater detail. According to many labor advocates, workers in many developing countries lack basic labor protections—such as the right to organize unions, and healthy and safe workplaces—that most American workers take for granted.
Weak and poorly enforced labor standards in developing countries are said to be unjust to workers. Since weak labor standards are often accompanied by low wages, they are also said to harm workers in the United States and other industrial countries who compete with developing country workers through trade and investment. Many times the transnational corporations that control the means of production will shift their operations to the country with the lowest cost of production. Lower costs of production tend to be exploitative by nature as the bottom line is the main concern.
In recent history, at Foxxcon, one of Apple’s manufacturing factories in China, there was a string of suicides because of the poor working conditions. Foxconn and Apple have since taken measures to improve working conditions.35 On the whole, countries, like China that have economies that are heavily built on the manufacturing sector, try to keep wages and costs for transnational corporations (TNCs) as low as possible. With many developing countries trying to attract capital from these firms, there is constant competition to drive down costs and wages. In turn, fair labor rights and working conditions are exchanged in the name of the competitive and free market, also known as “the race to the bottom.”
To address these problems, many labor advocates propose that new trade agreements include special provisions that permit one country to restrict the imports of another country if the country is found to be in violation of internationally accepted standards of labor protection. Proponents say that this threat of trade penalties or sanctions will encourage developing countries to improve their labor laws strengthen their enforcement of those laws, simultaneously. This could help both developing and industrial country workers. Currently, the U.S. has economic sanctions on a number of countries that violate human rights or basic tenets of American government, such as Cuba and Iran (see section on Import Restrictions).
Proposals to include labor provisions in new trade agreements have been opposed by developing country governments and businesses for one or more of the following reasons:
- Developing country governments and businesses worry that those trade agreements that seek to raise labor standards will be manipulated for protectionist purposes—that their exports will be blocked on the ground that their labor standards are not sufficiently acceptable when the true motivation is to protect uncompetitive firms in industrial countries.
- Many developing country governments and economists also argue that international pressure to improve labor standards detracts from developing countries with only one big advantage: a cheap supply of labor. They make the case that pressure to raise labor costs takes away from their comparative advantage, and that this pressure only benefits workers in rich countries.
- Still others argue that trade sanctions are an imprecise and unwieldy means for improving developing country’s inferior labor conditions, which often have complex economic and social causes. They argue that labor conditions can best be improved over time by promoting development that improves productivity. By increasing the size of a nation’s labor force, economic trends tend to pull up wages and working conditions automatically.
Efforts to introduce the issue of labor standards into the WTOan international body dealing with the rules of trade between participating nations, which have been led primarily by the United States and other industrialized countries, have been fiercely opposed by other member states, particularly developing countries. These representatives invoke all of the above concerns to argue that efforts to promote labor standards tend to inhibit their economic development.
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To read about NAFTAa treaty between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, which eliminated tariffs on many products traded between the three countries. It also protects intellectual propertyIntellectual property refers to the creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary or artistic works, and the symbols, names, and designs used in commerce. and outlines the removal of investment restriction amongst the three countries. and labor concerns, click here and to learn more about trade and labor standards, click here.