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Uplifting Workers’ Rights

Dan Tortorice

Much noise has been made recently about the suffering of workers in developing countries. But amidst this noise, few practical solutions have been offered. Most suggestions attack corporations, calling for direct regulations or boycotts, despite warnings that these policies may hurt the workers they intend to help. Even worse suggestions call for strict restrictions on trade and the dismantling of international bodies like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. While surely it is only a small percentage of the general public which calls for such drastic action, it is an unfortunate occurrence that those whose hearts care for these workers have heads which produce these ideas. It is my goal then to outline three broad areas of action that should be the goal of any organization dedicated to improving the conditions of workers in developing countries.

Set international labor standards for developing countries. Currently if the government of a developing country wishes to enforce a basic labor standard throughout its country, it finds itself in a vicious catch-22. If it imposes the standard, it risks losing future foreign investment to lower-cost countries, harming the future prosperity of its country. If it doesn’t impose the standard, its people continue to be denied fair treatment in the labor market. The solution to this problem is an international standard that all countries abide by.

A natural place to begin this discussion is within the World Trade Organization (WTO). This type of discussion has occurred before, but developing countries have had strong opposition to any labor standards. They feel, and perhaps rightly so, that the standards are a form of protectionism where developed countries try to protect their industries from cheaper imports. By imposing labor standards, developed countries hope to raise the prices of and perhaps eliminate cheaper imports from developing countries. If the WTO then is to be effective in establishing international labor standards, it must provide a forum for developing countries to get together and decide by themselves on international standards. Free from the fears of protectionism, developing countries can show whether they really do care about their workers. Once these standards are set, they can be enforced if developed countries prohibit their companies from investing in countries that do not meet these standards.

Fight Government Corruption. Globalization and free trade have the ability to lift the poorest of the poor into prosperity. But to reap the full benefits of international trade and investment, workers need a government that looks out for their interests. In order for workers to get the most out of globalization, they need to have as many employment opportunities as possible. This requires more globalization, not less. But it also requires that governments not allow companies to come in, destroy farmland, and set up factories as the only way for workers to make a living. In addition, to effectively protect their citizens, governments must tirelessly work to inform workers of the rights they have and provide confidential means of reporting labor practice violations.

Any government committed to democracy and the welfare of its people will do this most of the time. It is essential that individuals truly committed to improving the condition of labor in developing countries work for more democracy throughout the world. If one wishes to be a responsible global citizen then one should not wish the demise of the WTO, but question how the U.S. turns a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses when considering China for membership in the WTO. The responsible global citizen should not try to stop U.S. investment in Indonesia under the misguided belief that global investment exploits developing countries, but protest the silence of the United States on Indonesia’s human rights record until the country’s economic collapse. The responsible global citizen fights the tyrannical force of corrupt governments, not the liberalizing force of free trade.

Create Social Insurance Markets in Developing Countries. Unemployment insurance, social security, and welfare institutions exist in all developed countries. However, they are rarer in developing countries. When imposed on firms, labor standards often result in some workers losing their jobs. Where social insurance markets don’t exist, displaced workers are on their own to support themselves. In order for one to impose labor standards on private firms, one must be sure that adversely affected workers have some recourse. When developing countries cannot provide these markets, it is up to developed countries to provide funds to prevent the suffering of workers throughout the world.

These three goals go hand in hand. Each needs the others in order to effect positive change. But if the world is truly committed to improved global labor conditions -- though sadly it may not be -- these three goals represent a reasonable and effective route to better labor conditions worldwide.