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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. [1]

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. [2]

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.[3]

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. 74% If countries are required to raise their standards…this will force some companies to eliminate the jobs of poor people who desperately need the work
Countries should be required to meet minimum standards… because it is immoral for workers to be subject to harsh and unsafe conditions in the workplace. 83% It is up to each country to set its own standards…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%). [4]

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. [5]

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.) [6]

Paying Higher Prices to Ensure Products Not Made in Substandard Conditions

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.[7]

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." [8]

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.




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