Monday, May 7, 2007

A Different Globalization for Labor

It is commonly acknowledged among scholars and activists who identify as “progressive,” “liberal,” or otherwise left-leaning that globalization is bad in many ways for workers in developed countries such as the United States. While there is always tension between the interests of capital and labor, there have been moments when the economic interests of the two somewhat converged in specific contexts. In the case of “globalization” as currently practiced, with its “just in time” production, the outsourcing of manufacturing, and increasingly service, jobs, and free trade agreements conceptualized primarily in terms of free movement of goods and services (but not of workers), this is very much not the case. Rather, the interests of labor and capital (or corporations or “the economy”) are in some ways becoming highly divergent in developed nation contexts. (See also my recent posts on these topics: How Unique or Radically New is Our Current Situation Today?; Three Things Karl Marx Didn't See Coming; The "Sameness" of Republicans and Democrats)

Another common assumption is that such globalization processes are also bad for labor in the developing nation contexts that manufacturing and service jobs are being outsourced to, e.g. promoting sweat shop labor conditions. Robert J. Flanagan has recently published an important book on this topic, Globalization and Labor Conditions (Oxford University Press, 2006). Flanagan closely examines the available data on labor conditions around the world. He is clearly sympathetic to critiques of globalization, but comes to the conclusion that overall, globalization has led to improved conditions for labor in much of the world. He in no way implies that globalization processes make things wonderful for workers in developing countries. As he documents, there are things like sweatshop labor associated with globalization, but there are more overall jobs and fewer jobs with the worst labor conditions in more open developing economies – hardly what I’d consider a ringing endorsement, but still having more lousy jobs available might be better than having fewer or no lousy jobs available, even while still not good.

The argument Flanagan makes that I find most interesting is that workers in poorer countries would be well served by an even more open trade regime, one more open to the movement of labor. He writes (p. 181):

“Few people actively support poor labor conditions; many advance proposals for improving them. How should one sort through the flow of proposals to decide which ideas deserve serious attention? A very useful first principle of policy choice is to favor policies that expand, rather than contract, opportunities for target groups. The mechanisms of globalization fare very well by this criterion. The evidence developed and presented in this book and reviewed in the early part of this chapter shows how international trade, international migration, and multinational companies contribute to improved working conditions and labor rights. Contrary to the indictment of globalization outlined in the first chapter, the world’s workers would gain from fewer restrictions on these mechanisms of globalization. This conclusion applies most strongly to the world’s poorest workers. Relaxing barriers to international migration offers the most promising opportunity for expanding the positive impact of globalization on labor conditions, but prospects for international action to promote the international movement of labor seem dim at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

Freer movement of labor (which wouldn’t have to mean unregulated or unmonitored) would benefit labor by allowing tools such as modern transportation technology to benefit labor as well as capital. As Flanagan suggests, this would most benefit the poorest workers, but by helping the cheapest labor not be stuck in place, easier movement would indirectly aid other workers as well by making the strategy of chasing the cheapest labor via outsourcing a little less effective.

As Flanagan also points out, international action to promote freer (and regulated) movement of labor is unlikely soon. For starters, it’s not in the interests of capital (though having some available undocumented immigrant labor to mercilessly exploit in developed nation contexts is in capital’s interests). Second, freer movement of labor is understandably resisted by labor in developed countries – more immigrants are more competition for jobs that are already being reduced through outsourcing.

A recent commentary in The Nation (May 7, 2007, p. 8) by Deepak Bhargava and Angelica Salas makes a case for immigration reform, including regulated but freer movement, being in the interests of all labor and a worthy progressive cause. Freer, but documented and regulated immigration could contribute to eliminating the abuses of undocumented laborers and the problems for resident laborers in terms of wage competition. Also, as argued above, a move towards a free trade regime that emphasizes not just free movement of goods and services but of labor as well would most benefit the poorest, but would indirectly benefit labor in general by reducing capital’s ability to locate and fix in place the cheapest labor (because those laborers could simply move elsewhere for higher wages, contributing to upward pressure on wages in general).

Like it or not, we’re stuck with capitalism and globalization. That’s simply not going to change anytime soon. We’re not so clearly stuck with the precise details of capitalist globalization as it now functions. For those of us seeing ourselves as progressives, it makes sense to contribute to efforts at modifying globalization so that it serves the interests of labor as much as capital.

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