Free reign on global trade is what corporate titans hope for
April 16, 2019 10:16 AM   Subscribe

“Much of the modern economy, pioneered by Walmart, is reliant upon increasingly complex supply chains that push production costs down onto subcontractors, giving them incentive to wring every cent of profit out of workers and protecting large corporations from responsibility. This must end. Companies claim they cannot patrol their supply chains but this is a choice. They do a great job of controlling for cost and quality, yet when it comes to labor standards, they plead ignorance. That is not acceptable. If a Walmart supplier refuses to pay its workers the minimum wage, then Walmart is responsible for that by choosing that contractor. Holding Walmart financially accountable for its supply chains through U.S. courts would alone raise global workplace standards.” The Democrats’ Yawning Silence on Trade (Boston Review)
posted by The Whelk (11 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
As a foreigner who sells into the United States, and as the sole provider of a family of four who relies on Walmart to make ends meet in an increasingly expensive world, I was not at all convinced by this article.

The article talks about improving global working conditions, but starts off by framing the issue from a US perspective -- what the US has supposedly lost over the last 25-30 years of free trade.

Yet the article only provides one concrete example of poor overseas working conditions -- a fire at a sweatshop in Bangladesh.

In fact, there are no details about the status of American workers, either.

The article also ignores the fact that unemployment in the United States is at its lowest levels in 40 years. Wage growth in the US is at a ten-year high. Which means the employment participation rate has also recovered to pre-Great Recession levels.

I think there is an argument to made for ensuring the people who make our stuff have safe working conditions, but this article seems to be merely using these people as a rhetorical tool, and the rhetoric ain't all that good, either.
posted by JamesBay at 10:33 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

"Rein!" It's "Rein!"
posted by sensate at 10:57 AM on April 16 [22 favorites]

Perhaps a better way to frame the issue and genuinely address working conditions for people in the Global South would be to link US consumption with GHG and climate change. Climate change, directly driven by historical consumption patterns in the US and other rich northern countries, is already affecting workers in the Global South.

The writer should call on Democrats to improve the living conditions of workers in the poorer countries that make our stuff by addressing consumption and climate change.
posted by JamesBay at 11:51 AM on April 16

It frames it in terms of the effect of trade on the US, probably because it's a US media outlet but also because that's a winning political strategy. Trump was and is a charlatan, but many people in the US are increasingly skeptical of the benefit (to them and the US generally) of free trade. That shouldn't be underestimated in terms of its significance; as recently as the early 2000s, anti-globalization was a pretty fringey movement. Significant trade limitations are now within the realm of political possibility—sell it in the right way, and you might be able to put together a coalition willing to pass something. (I mean, probably not before 2020, because nothing useful is going to get done before 2020.) Emphasize to the left that it's about worker protections and ending the race-to-the-bottom, and to the right as sticking a thumb in China's eye just out of spite, and to the middle as supporting American industry and jobs or something; together you might have enough support to overcome the profit-uber-alles corporatists in both parties.

I don't believe you'll get US voters to vote for something purely for the benefit of people in the Global South. If the American population was open to that sort of thing, we'd see a ton of laws and regulations that don't currently exist. Consumer behavior would be different. All the rhetoric around trade would be different. That's not to say that people don't care, but it doesn't seem to be an issue people vote on.

The most successful campaigns that I can recall having to do with foreign working conditions were those aimed at particular companies, mostly because their target customer demographic happened to be one that gave slightly more shits than average. (High-end sneakers renouncing child-labor sweatshops would be the big win that comes to mind.) It is possible to get people to think about working conditions when buying a product, particularly if there are lots of substitute goods (and even better if there are substitute goods that cost less because the product at issue is a 'luxury' item or one with brand cachet). It's less successful when it's getting people to not use a product at all—the stories about blood cashews haven't seemed to alter consumption much at all. Basically, people claim to care about foreign workers, and they probably do in some abstract sense, but the amount of actual effort or behavioral change they're willing to expend is quite small, basically only what it takes to move their hand six inches to the left or right to avoid one particular brand of product and buy a functionally identical one instead.

So if you want to protect foreign workers, you need to show domestic voters what's in it for them.

Anyway, I see increasing limits on trade as one of those things that is Going To Happen, mostly because as Asia modernizes and builds a middle class there's no obvious reason for them to involve US companies, plus higher wages mean less opportunities for ridiculous profits via offshoring; without all that profit to keep everyone acting like friends, the whole relationship will likely become increasingly adversarial. But in the meantime it doesn't surprise me that the corporatist free-traders are pushing back hard. Like every other issue where they are on the wrong side of the long arc of history—climate change being the obvious one, but also the US healthcare system—they're going to try to run out the clock. TBH I don't really get this strategy, but maybe if you've got fewer decades to live than I hope to have, eating the world's seed corn so you can die with a full belly seems like a great idea.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:18 PM on April 16 [12 favorites]

Also, they seem pretty fixated on Walmart having had a hand in creating this so Walmart needs to be held accountable. I don't disagree entirely with the first part, but this has snowballed way past Walmart at this point.
posted by allkindsoftime at 3:34 PM on April 16

I am giving Google the side eye right now.

There is some startling number (I want to say it's at least 60% of the company (can someone confirm this?) are contractors.

So in addition to other responsibilities being shirked because these folks are not technically FTEs, Goolge also doesn't have to do things like offer them healthcare or retirement plans.

Agreed, this must stop.
posted by floweredfish at 6:47 PM on April 16

Yet the article only provides one concrete example of poor overseas working conditions -- a fire at a sweatshop in Bangladesh.

The article links to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, a staggering and ultimately intentional disaster that led to over a thousand and one hundred people dying. In that instant, almost as many people died in that collapse as have been killed in American mass shootings since 1966.

The article also discusses:
Yet within weeks of the MFA’s 2005 expiration, underground sweatshops appeared with terrible working conditions. Now a free-for-all, Cambodian labor saw its working conditions and wages plummet to some of the lowest in the industry. Wages fell by more than 20 percent for Cambodian garment workers between 2001 and 2011 and remains terrible today.
posted by Ouverture at 6:59 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]

Uh JamesBay, speaking of rhetoric... Even if the article mentions only "one concrete example", I think it's well established that there is sweatshop problem in many parts of the world exacerbated by globalism (I'm understating my words here). Also, while employment numbers in the US may look good on paper, many of them are lower paying jobs than before, so the whole picture is not that rosy.
posted by blue shadows at 10:34 PM on April 16 [2 favorites]

Nancy Pelosi has been using the stick of refusing approval of any US trade agreements with a future version of the UK, in order to enforce the Good Friday Agreement that the Tory government wants to discard, to placate the unionist extremists in its circle.

It requires backbone, but it seems an important (even if rare) example that shows it is possible for Dems to use trade to push for positive social outcomes, to reduce the potential for conflict, if not underscore the importance of peace, by underlining the severe consequences to conservatives who repeatedly violate societal norms, expectations, and contractual agreements.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:37 AM on April 17

The dirty secret hidden behind the rhetoric of the Republicans labeling Democrats as "lefties" is that they are just as big backers of capitalism as the Republicans. Democrats are no more left than my right hand.
posted by JJ86 at 5:02 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Ah good, clearly it's everyone's fault equally then, nothing to be done here because the Democrats aren't leftists.*

The article actually proposes some decent starting points, although good grief is there a lot of work to be done. "Any success in overhauling international trade policies will also certainly only come on the heels of smart complementary domestic policy" is . . . not exactly rife with hopefulness.

*Not directing this at you specifically, but good grief I feel like this is one of those sentiments for which we could just come up with an acronym or not bother repeating ad infinitum.

And "reign" for "rein" is also one of my pet peaves.

posted by aspersioncast at 9:48 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]

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