Protection harms workers

In: Uncategorized

14 May 2008

It is becoming increasingly clear how mainstream concern for labour standards has become (see 6 May 2008 post). It used to be the case that radicals would typically support workers in their struggles against employers. Today self-appointed defenders of labour standards seek to protect employees against greedy companies. In the past it was about expressing solidarity for workers’ battles today it is primarily a case of using state institutions to defend employees as victims. The two notions could not be more different.

Two recent examples of how this works. The awful British fashion brats from BBC3’s Blood, Sweat and T-shirts (see 18 April 2008 post) appearing on Newsnight to talk about labour standards in the developing world. The group were at best gormless (wearing an £800 bracelet while working in an Indian cotton factory) and more often contemptuous of their Indian hosts. Yet they somehow have the moral authority to talk about Indian labour standards on a premier news programme.

A more perceptive piece by TA Frank, a former sweatshop inspector, appears in the April issue of Washington Monthly. Among other things it reminds readers that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have criticised trade deals as unfair to American workers while arguing for future agreements to have higher labour standards. It also makes the point that Robert Reich started cracking down on American sweatshop when he was labor secretary in the Clinton administration.

It is hard to think of many things more nauseating than protectionism masquerading as support for workers. Nor, as some of the Indian workers featured in Blood, Sweat and T-shirts pointed out, is it as simply as banning child labour in the developing world. The alternative for many child workers and their families is often extreme hardship and even starvation. The solution is economic development in the poorer countries. Child labour is rare when countries become rich.

Comment Form