Global Issues >> International Trade
International Labor Standards
Americans show a strong concern for maintaining international
labor standards. An overwhelming majority favors the US requiring
compliance with international labor standards as part of international
trade agreements. This is prompted by a sense of moral obligation
to foreign workers as well as concern that low labor standards
in other countries create unfair competition for US labor.
An overwhelming majority also feels that the United States
should not allow products to be imported when they have been
made under conditions in violation of international labor
standards. A strong majority indicates a readiness to pay
higher prices for products to ensure that they are not manufactured
in substandard conditions.
As discussed above in "Reservations About the Effects
of Trade in Practice," Americans have concerns that the
growth of international trade may promote the exploitation
of foreign workers. Americans also feel they have an obligation
to ensure that the products they use are not made in harsh
or unsafe conditions. Presented two arguments in the June
2005 PIPA poll, 74% endorsed the argument in favor of such
an obligation, while only 20% endorsed the argument that "it
is not for us to judge what the working conditions should
be in another country." This attitude has remained rock
solid for some time: In January 2004 and October 1999 PIPA
polls, the same percentage said we had such a moral obligation.
Incorporating Labor Standards Into Trade Agreements
As discussed in "Reservations About the Effects of Trade
in Practice," numerous polls have shown that a very strong
majority of Americans endorse the view that a variety of considerations,
including international labor standards, should be incorporated
into the process of developing trade agreements.
In addition, poll questions that ask specifically about incorporating
labor standards find overwhelming support. In four polls conducted
between 2002 and 2004 by PIPA and CCFR, , 93% of respondents
in each survey agreed that countries that take part in international
trade agreements should be “required to maintain minimum
standards for working conditions.” [1a]
Such agreements are seen as a high priority. An April 2000
Harris Interactive/Business Week poll asked whether "Preventing
unfair competition by countries that violate workers' rights"
should be "a major priority of US trade agreements, a
minor priority, or not a priority at all." Seventy-four
percent said that it should be a major priority, with another
15% saying that it should be a minor priority. Only 8% said
that it should not be a priority. 
In October 1999 PIPA offered two arguments for, and two against,
the idea that "countries who are part of this [trade]
agreement should be required to maintain certain standards
for working conditions, such as minimum health and safety
standards and the right to organize into unions." The
pro arguments were found much more convincing than the con
arguments. Interestingly, the pro argument based on moral
concerns for foreign workers was the most convincing, with
83% endorsing it. Still strong, though, was the more self-interested
argument that countries with lower standards have an unfair
advantage. On the con side, the morally based argument that
requiring higher labor standards would "eliminate the
jobs of poor people who desperately need the work" was
found convincing by just 37%. A con argument, based on the
principle that imposing labor standards is a violation of
a country's national sovereignty, also fared poorly (41% convincing).
After evaluating the pro and con arguments, respondents were
asked their conclusion. Just as when the CCFR asked the question
without offering the arguments, a near-unanimous 93% said
that countries should be required to maintain such standards.
Support for Including
Labor Standards in Trade Agreements-
Percent Finding Argument Convincing-
|Countries who do not maintain minimum standards
for working conditions have an unfair advantage because
they can exploit workers and produce goods for less.
||If countries are required to raise their
this will force some companies to eliminate
the jobs of poor people who desperately need the work
|Countries should be required to meet minimum
because it is immoral for workers to be
subject to harsh and unsafe conditions in the workplace.
||It is up to each country to set its own
the international community should not
intrude by trying to dictate what each country should
do within its borders.
|93% said that "countries that
are part of international trade agreements should be required
to maintain minimum standards for working conditions."
While Americans do not expect workers abroad to achieve full
wage parity, they overwhelming endorse the idea that wages
should be allowed through higher labor rights. The June 2005
PIPA poll found 83% agreeing with the statement, “While
we cannot expect workers in foreign countries to make the
same wages as in the US, we should expect other countries
to permit wages to rise by allowing workers to organize into
unions and by putting a stop to child labor.” This number
is virtually unchanged from responses to the same question
in 1999 and 2004.[3a]
Other polls have found strong majorities in favor of including
a wide array of labor issues in trade agreements. For example,
in a 1997 poll by Peter Hart for the AFL-CIO Americans overwhelmingly
agreed that trade agreements should include standards "so
that all countries would have to…meet workplace health
and safety standards" (94%); "have and enforce laws
against child labor" (93%); "protect basic human
rights, such as the freedom to associate or have meetings,
and the freedom to strike or protest" (92%); "pay
their workers a minimum wage based on the poverty line of
the country" (81%); and "ensure the legal right
to form unions or bargain collectively" (78%). 
Support for imposing labor standards may also be going up.
An April 1996 Wirthlin Group poll asked whether the WTO "should
penalize countries that violate international labor standards,"
defined as "those calling for every country to set a
minimum wage, protecting workers' rights to organize, and
prohibiting child labor." Although the question presented
the issue in an unbalanced manner in favor of imposing such
standards, support, while very high, was a bit lower than
in the current survey-79% supported it. 
Barring Imports Made Under Substandard Conditions
Besides supporting international efforts to impose labor standards
Americans also support unilaterally barring the import of
products made under substandard working conditions-contrary
to WTO principles. Overwhelming majorities wanted to bar products
made by children under the age of 15 when they "are required
to work so many hours that they cannot go to school"
(80%), or when they are "forced to work under threat
of punishment" (82%). Products made by adult "workers
in factories that are unsafe or unhealthy" also should
be barred from the US, according to a very strong 77% majority.
However, only 42% thought the US should bar "products
made by workers who are not allowed to organize into unions."
(This lack of majority support for barring products from countries
where unions do not exist indicates that Americans do care
about the other issues that receive strong majorities; they
are not merely embracing any measure that would protect jobs.)
Paying Higher Prices to Ensure Products Not Made in
Naturally, a key question is whether Americans would really
be willing to accept paying higher prices to ensure that they
are not produced in substandard working conditions. In response
to a variety of poll questions, a majority says that it would.
In two recent PIPA studies, respondents were told about the
possibility of "an international organization that would
check the conditions in a factory and, if acceptable, give
them the right to label their products as not made in a sweatshop."
As shown below, strong majorities said they would pay more
for the product labeled as not made in a sweatshop. That majority
declined from 76% to 60% between 1999 and 2004, perhaps reflecting
more difficult economic times in the United States.
A November 1999 study by ICR for Marymount University's Center
for Ethical Concerns also found that Americans would pay more
for non-sweatshop garments. In that poll, 86% said they would
be "willing to pay up to $1 more for a $20 garment guaranteed
to be made in a legitimate shop." 
Here the question arises whether--even if an overwhelming
majority of Americans say that they would purchase the non-sweatshop
product--would they actually do so in the real event? It is
more than likely that a smaller number would do so than say
they would, though the magnitude of this difference is hard
to quantify. What this response does suggest-and what is most
significant-is that if the US were to require imported products
to be made in non-sweatshop conditions and Americans were
to hear that, as a result, the costs of products were somewhat
higher, most Americans would probably find this unobjectionable.