Some have recently argued, against intuition, that the nation’s trade deficit is a sign of stability and that claims to the contrary are protectionist, isolationist and unenlightened. Often these same experts push for free trade agreements that open the floodgates for multinational corporations, originally formed in the United States, to ship jobs overseas. Today, as a result of unconditional free trade, many products sold in American stores are made in sweatshops.
I know you’re thinking this is just another moralist rant, and to a degree, it is. Many of these workers get paid a small fraction of what U.S. workers make and are forced, under threat of being fired, to work overtime in Third World countries that refuse to enforce existing labor laws. In addition, workers are locked in their factory room and work with few, if any, breaks.
These foreign Third World workers could literally be characters out of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Many of these workers are young and from rural areas migrating to new and urban manufacturing centers, looking to improve life for themselves and their families, the same reasons that Sinclair’s characters – and many of our great grandparents – came to this nation.
Although post-World War II Democratic and Republican administrations used U.S. trade policy to stimulate the economies of impoverished ally nations, the strategy is clearly not working today; in fact, exacerbates the situation. Our government could easily work to make it less advantageous for big and small corporations to import products made in Third World sweatshops by responding to foreign protective tariffs and forcing other nations, especially China, to crack down on counterfeit products copyrighted in the United States.
In addition, fair trade agreements and treaties – which enforce worker’s rights laws and strict adherence to environmental production standards – would help by providing special trading privileges with the United States. These agreements could ultimately stem the tide of outsourcing by making it more expensive to produce goods in other counties, while protecting foreign workers from abuse, a policy win for self-proclaimed internationalists and American nationalists alike.
Many on the campus are already active in organizations that promote this more humane view of foreign and American workers as people rather than a pure commodity. The Fair Trade Advocacy Club has pushed to get Fair Trade coffee in the dining halls, and has called for Congress to vote against ratifying free trade deals, such as a recent free trade agreement between the United States and Peru.
While sweatshop labor and outsourcing are horrible problems, as we’ve known for years, what’s just as alarming is that American multinationals often avoid paying much of their tax burden. These companies would have the consumer believe they are patriotic, but sneakily set up offshore subsidiaries and reinvest in business ventures in foreign countries, so that profits are taxed at lower rates outside the U.S.
Sen. Byron Dorgan’s new book, Take This Job and Ship It, really captures the gravity of the situation, not only unearthing many human and worker’s rights abuses in the Third World but also making a case for a nationalist trading policy that encourages multinational corporations to respect the American worker and American law.
I realize we are not living in the world of our grandparents, when our nation’s manufacturing sector was the backbone of the economy, and unions could demand much from employers, but corporations must start respecting workers and the communities in which they live. We live in a world where CEOs feel little shame in making millions of dollars a year, while their products are outsourced to sweatshops, and former American workers lose their pensions because the company claims bankruptcy.
Our generation, in all likelihood, will inherit massive amounts of debt, a soaring trade deficit, a culture of corporate greed and a shrinking and weakened middle class. We must prepare to meet these challenges, or it maybe the end of America’s run as the world’s sole economic and political superpower.
Jason George is a sophomore economics major. He can be reached at email@example.com.