What did you do last weekend? Did you do anything with your parents? How about in the evenings after school? Did you know that we owe the weekend and the eight-hour workday to the historic efforts of labor unions? Workers of the past campaigned and risked their jobs (and lives) during strikes to gain better working conditions in the US so that future generations would have better lives.
Now, what about workers in developing countries - countries like Guatemala and Zimbabwe whose land is still mainly wilderness? A lot of those workers work in sweatshops. Not only do sweatshop laborers not get weekends off, or eight-hour days, they face losing their jobs at best, and losing their lives at worst for trying to gain better wages and benefits. In many countries, workers would rather work under such harsh conditions than have no job at all. It's a very real problem they face, when lax labor laws allow this sort of oppression.
We are fortunate to have labor laws that protect us in the United States. And it seems unfortunate that workers in less developed nations do not have the same protections. This seems simple enough. Now the tricky part…
Having laws that protect worker's rights and wages in the US means that many companies are eager to send work to other countries, where labor is cheaper. That means that American workers could lose jobs to workers overseas. The threat of this makes American workers feel insecure and less prone to ask for increased wages and benefits. Alan Greenspan, the powerful head of the independent Federal Reserve Bank, said "greater worker insecurity … contributes to the health of the economy." Wait a minute! How could it be that the more insecure a worker feels, the better the economy is?
The way most economists measure the economy is by how much money flows through the country. Certain things make the economy seem better. For instance, when companies are able to produce things for less cost, they can make greater profits when they sell, and presumably reduce the prices too. The American public, in turn, helps the economy by spending money on products, which are less expensive because the companies had to spend less to make them. But there is a catch.
Companies reduce their costs in many ways, through better technologies and more efficient manufacturing to name a couple, but one of the more significant ways is by hiring cheaper labor. Remember those jobs that went overseas? The American public is spending less on products than before, while they have less money to do it with?
Now, you've probably heard about our booming economy (up until recently that is). Noam Chomsky of MIT calls this a "Fairy Tale Economic Boom" because it is only a dream for most people. The truth is that it only is a boom for people who own stock. Chomsky will tell you "1 percent of the population owns 50 percent of the stock, and 10 percent of the population owns nearly all of it." If you look back over the last 20 years, median incomes have been decreasing; two-thirds of Americans have been making less and less, when you take inflation into account.
US history will tell you that these sorts of issues are not new. The difference today is that our economy has become much more global. That is where the World Trade Organization (WTO) comes in. After World War II, countries of the world entered into an agreement called the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). This agreement created international laws that reduced tariffs and other trade barriers between countries. Trade barriers could be tariffs (taxes on imports to discourage too many) or quotas (outright limits on the amount of goods imported). The WTO began as a continuation of the principles of the GATT, but took this agreement much further. The WTO is not only a set of agreements and international trade laws, it is also a governing body made up of representatives from participating countries.
There has been much criticism of the WTO in recent years. You may recall the "Battle in Seattle" a year ago, when protestors interrupted the WTO meetings in Seattle. The greatest complaints are that the WTO is more in favor of getting rid of trade barriers and promoting the interests of corporations than in protecting the rights of workers in developing nations or the welfare of the environment. The WTO will tell you they are in favor of protecting workers and the environment, but their actions suggest the opposite.
Part of what the WTO promotes is something called "harmonization." It sounds like it would be a wonderful thing, everybody in harmony. However, harmonization is potentially very harmful to much of the progress that has been made towards sustainable development (keeping the environment healthy while staying in business) and protections of workers' rights. Harmonization means that different countries would make their standards the same. (Sounds good so far). However, harmonization also means that all of the standards match the lowest version. In other words, if one country requires healthy, all-natural, free range asparagus, and another country only requires dirty, pesticide ridden, scraped-from-the-ground asparagus, the first country is required to accept the lower standards of the second country when doing business. It's a shameful way to promote international trade, if you think about it this way. Harmonization becomes more of a reality every time the WTO meets and has a chance to create new laws and regulations. People, like you and me, who stand to lose out from agreements like these are not represented at WTO meetings. And it's not fair.
What can you do?
As always, it's important to be informed on all sides of the issue.
Find out what the WTO has to say for itself on their website.
Now, find out the truth behind the WTO at WTOwatch
Next, you can get involved with these organizations if you feel inspired.
One of the best things you can do anytime and anywhere is to tell your friends about what you've learned. Present the facts and let them decide for themselves.
As with any concern you may have, it always helps to write your senator or representative. They treat every letter received as if there are many more people who feel the same way.
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