Recent stories about the conditions of Apple’s contractors in China have opened many people’s eyes about where our jobs, factories, industries and economy have been going, and why. The stories exposed that workers live 6-to-12-to-a-room in dormitories, get rousted at midnight to work surprise 12-hour shifts, get paid very little, use toxic chemicals, suffer extreme pollution of the environment, etc. Is this “trade?” Or is it something else?
Is This “Trade?”
“Trade” means to exchange, to buy and sell, you buy from me and I buy from you. I have something you want and you have something I want, and we exchange. We both end up better off than where we started.
Is it “trade” to close a factory here and move it to a country where people don’t have a say? It is “trade” to just move all of the machines from a factory here to a factory there, send the same parts and raw materials over there, and then bring bring back whatever it was the factory used to make and sell it in the same places here? Is that really “trade?” Or would another word be more appropriate?
When People Have A Say
When people have a say we insist on good wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and a clean environment. We even go so far as to say we want good public schools, parks and opportunities for our smaller businesses. When We, the People have a say we get so uppity and ask for the most outrageous things!
Efficiency vs. Humanity
Yes, countries where people do not have a say are more “efficient” and “business friendly.” Countries where people do not have a say can make things at a much lower cost than workers where people have rights. But when we let exploitation of human beings be a competitive advantage it undermines our own democracy. It means that democracy is a competitive disadvantage in world markets.
We Can’t “Compete” With This, We Have To Fight It
Let’s get right to the core of this. Suppose the South actually did rise again, and they reimposed all-out slavery. Would it be “trade” to close factories here and move them south, so the companies would have lower costs?
When we allow companies to just import stuff that is made by exploited workers in countries where people do not have a say, we are granting not-having-a-say an advantage over having a say. We make democracy a competitive disadvantage.
This Is About Preserving Democracy, Not About “Trade”
How often do you come across arguments that “globalization” and “free trade” mean that America’s workers have to accept that the days of good-paying jobs and US-based manufacturing are over? We hear that countries like China are more “competitive.” We hear that “trade” means that because it’s cheaper to make things over there we all benefit from lower-cost goods that we import.
How often do you hear that we need to cut wages and benefits, work longer hours, get rid of overtime and sick pay? They say we should shed unions, get rid of environmental and safety regulations, gut government services, and especially, especially, especially we should cut taxes.
What they are saying is that we need to shed our democracy, to be more competitive.
Dave Johnson (Redwood City, CA) is a Fellow at Campaign for America's Future, writing about American manufacturing, trade and economic/industrial policy. He is also a Senior Fellow with Renew California. Dave has more than 20 years of technology industry experience including positions as CEO and VP of marketing. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. And he was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.
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