Script of cartoon:
Panel 1: An Uncle Sam sort of figure, wearing a top hat with stars and stripes and a floral Hawaiian shirt, is talking to a cigar-chomping businessman.
Uncle Sam has his hand on a sign sticking out of the dirt. The sign says “NEVER AGAIN!”
UNCLE SAM: 146 workers died in the Triangle Factory fire! We can NEVER let that happen again!
BUSINESSMAN: If you institute safety regulations for my factories, I’ll be forced to raise prices! You play a few cents extra per shirt!
Close-up of Uncle Sam, who is looking very anxious about this dilemma.
UNCLE SAM: A few cents? That’s HORRIBLE! But hundreds of factory workers dying is ALSO horrible! What a DILEMMA!
BUSINESSMAN: I know! I’ll build totally unregulated factories in other countries! So shirts will stay cheap, but we won’t have any more big factory tragedies in the USA!
UNCLE SAM: Hooray! EVERYBODY wins!
BUSINESSMAN: That’s capitalism for ya.
We can see that the “NEVER AGAIN!” sign now has a piece of paper taped under it; the paper says “Where we have to see it.”
There’s undeniable truth in that cartoon, Amp. Now tell me this – what’s the solution? State control of where shirts can be made? A law that says that no shirt can be sold in the U.S. unless the factory where it was produced meets U.S. safety standards – regardless of where the factory is?
Personally, I would wholeheartedly support a law like this.
At the last Chicago Episcopal Diocesean Convention I attended, there was a symposium on green energy practices. Everyone from the other parishes were congratulating themselves and each other on the latest initiative; getting rid of all their old incandescent bulbs and putting in the new florescent-based bulbs. I was asked when we were going to do it. I said “never”.
Thus identified as a trogdolyte, I was taken to task and asked condescendingly why not. I said “It’s racist.” That floated the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, as I was implicitly accusing them of racism. I noted that there was mercury in the bulbs. That concern was dismissed. “You take the worn-out bulbs back to where you bought them and they send them out for recycling!” and thus the problem is solved and backwards people like me are answered.
Well, leaving aside the issue of compliance – which from what I can see is low – I noted that while they had at least a theoretical answer for the end of the bulb’s lifecycle, they had not considered the front end – production. Did they know where the mercury in the bulbs came from? No, it turns out, they did not. It does not come from the U.S. The EPA has (quite properly, in my opinion) placed very strong regulations on the production of mercury. On that basis it is cheaper to just buy it from overseas, from mines in Asia and Africa. There is little regulation of those operations, so the miners – and their spouses and children – live and work in what turns out to be highly polluted environments.
So we here in the U.S. don’t suffer dementia from holes eaten in our brains and birth defects in our children. We export all that to brown and yellow people. And congratulate ourselves on how green we are.
I wouldn’t have a huge problem with it either. But consider the two primary and immediate effects. First, you’re going to have to hire a bunch of people to monitor compliance. Those will be Federal employees, and tax money will be needed to pay them. Second, it’s going to cost you a lot more to buy a shirt. Mr. and Mrs. America will not be pleased with that.
Until a few years ago, all Boy Scout uniforming was made in the U.S. by union labor. The union “bug” was sewn into each and every piece. When the latest version of the uniform came out, that bug was gone. Uniforming was getting so expensive that the B.S.A. finally broke down and moved production overseas, essentially due to pressure from the parents of the Scouts who couldn’t understand why uniforming was so much more expensive than all the other clothes they bought their kids – or didn’t care. Even though there was no question that it was a lot better made than the other clothes they bought their kids. It still is – the B.S.A. is doing a good job of enforcing production standards – and the uniforming is still somewhat expensive, but it would be a lot more expensive if it was still being made in the U.S.
This is a tricky issue. The “right” answer has a lot to do with whose priorities you decide to privilege.
For example, take this simple-appearing question: if you could choose between building a dangerous factory or not building a factory at all, what would you choose? There are costs and benefits to both choices. Or, make it a bit more complex: If a bunch of workers in India could choose between “work at a dangerous factory” or “not work at the factory at all,” what would THEY choose? Would it be the same as what you would choose?
Obviously the ideal is “work at a safe factory” but, just like “give a lot of US citizens a job and convince everyone else to buy the stuff which is produced at a U.S.-classified fair living wage” that isn’t always the choice you get to make.
In the law of bizarre consequences, this would probably increase the dominance of huge corporations. Nike and Adidas and other huge brands are large enough to have their OWN factories, so they can (in theory) make things more efficient, cut out the middleman, and retain their profits. But if you’re a small business, then what? You can’t afford to make the factory improvements on your own, you can’t afford to buy from the US, you can’t find someone else to do it…
Also, this would functionally do a l0t of damage to a lot of economies. Which, again, is an issue of deciding whose interests you want to protect: if you shut down every unsafe factory in India you would save a lot of injuries and cause a lot of people to starve. And so on.
gin-and-whiskey is largely correct….
1. “The benefits of export-led economic growth to the mass of people in the newly industrializing economies are not a matter of conjecture”.
2. “While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers”
3. “low wages and poor working conditions by Western standards” are “necessary and inevitable in poor countries”
4. “Third-world countries desperately need their export industries”
1. ” there are now serious moves to impose stricter safety and working conditions standards in third-world apparel producers”
2. “So what’s my view?”
3. “The answer is, I’m all for them”
4. “I don’t think that’s a contradiction of my earlier views”
“…can we demand that Bangladesh provide better conditions for its workers? If we do this for Bangladesh, and only for Bangladesh, it could backfire: the business could move to China or Cambodia. But if we demand higher standards for all countries — modestly higher standards, so that we’re not talking about driving the business back to advanced countries — we can achieve an improvement in workers’ lives (and fewer horrible workers’ deaths), without undermining the export industries these countries so desperately need.”
**All quotes above are from Paul Krugman. I’ll link up on request (this is an amalgamation of various pieces).
That would be the Law of Unintended Consequences. The history of government law and regulations are full of them. The imposition of regulations very often favor large corporations over small businesses. On the input side, the large corporations are much more likely to have lobbyists that can influence how the laws or regulations are drawn up. On the output side, large corporations can afford the staffs of lawyers and bureaucrats who can adapt to the changes and also can delay or alter their enforcement – but only in their own particular cases, unlike the small business who aren’t big enough to fight and can only comply to the letter of the law as interpreted by the individual regulator they’re dealing with or get shut down. And unlike a large business, a small business cannot afford to have a production line or other process shut down for very long.
Here’s a paper on this very subject
I presume “MNC” = MultiNational Corporation.
Hrm. So this is weird to me.
The question is not “what should we do?” as in the US should have some sort of international labor law to prevent abuses. The question is “what should we stop doing?” as in the US and US affiliated institutions are the primary lobbyists against international labor laws and increased protection for workers in developing countries.
I can only speak with confidence about China, but whenever China has tried to pass or enforce worker protection laws, the primary opponents of the legislation haven’t been Chinese factory owners, but the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-China Business council, who lobby strenuously against 12 hour workdays, basic safety protections and accountability, and having to pay employees what they agreed. I know that these are private institutions, but they do this lobbying with the support and backing of the US government.
So it’s not a question of the US needing to “do something about this” as the US needing to “stop doing this.” Reform isn’t going to come from the top down. We should just stop fighting it tooth and nail.
(Tellingly, when China has successfully passed and enforced labor laws, it has not resulted in the flight of foreign manufacturers as so many economists direly predict. It turns out when you control a vast percentage of the world’s free labor force, as China does, people stick around. Vietnam and Cambodia simply don’t have the population to be functional competition for China.)
True. Hey–strict economic control and an enforced labor market are problematic most of the time, but they have their good sides as well.
And of course, isn’t China is also doing what we would basically expect? Not only is China large (and therefore it has better bargaining power) but as a country gets richer and more sophisticated, it eventually starts being able to afford to make things like safety trade-offs. I’m not entirely surprised that we would tangle with China, because from an economic standpoint they are a very concerning competitor.