There are those today who think all this is a thing of the past and industrial trade unionism is redundant. There are people out there who think globalized markets are the panacea to everything. Their shriveled spirits and hostile hearts refuse to recognize the true sorry state of worldwide labor rights.
The reality is that the blessings of unprecedented choice many Canadians currently enjoy comes at a dear price in the savagely competitive world of global business. In China, Honduras, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cambodia or Guatemala, the pattern is the same: long hours, pay scales below any standards of decency, draconian health risks, intimidation and harassment for the legions who produce goods. Often they are migrant workers. Increasingly they are women. All of them cogs in a system that is largely beyond regulation or control.
Dominated by a few giants -- Wal-Mart is a name that comes up repeatedly -- the global manufacturing industry aims to turn on a dime to find the cheapest possible way of filling orders. Elementary rights such as the freedom to associate, reasonable hours and safe working conditions often go by the board. Even companies that have ethical production standards in the West, violate them in the Third World as suppliers cut under-the-table deals with subcontractors.
We must all, whether as businesspeople, consumers or investors, reject the notion of a "race to the bottom" in which the only objective is minimum price and maximum profit. To state this is not communism, or socialism or nihilism. It is decency for the global village we all inhabit. For in the final analysis, in this age of instant communication, and instant destruction, what affects one affects all. We are all mortal. We all cherish our future. And pain caused to the least amongst us should be viscerally felt by all, for that pain may one day rise up as a tidal wave and sweep down upon us until in the words of the Hebrew prophets “…justice shall fall like water and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
Charity balls and foundation gifts don’t cut it anymore. We must all walk the walk not just talk the talk. Globalization must fulfill the promise of each human being having a call on the bounty of society’s wealth to which their labor has so much contributed. If we limit the flow of well-being to these exploited workers, we will surely drown in the flood of their anger which will be of a scale incomparably more violent than the march of labor in the West ever was.
Most Canadians would feel very uncomfortable buying toys or children's clothes if they knew they were made by women whose hours were so long and benefits so meager that they were unable to care properly for their own kids. But like all decisions, consumer choice requires information to be effective. And reliable information isn't always on offer. Shoppers and investors can demand it. Conscientious manufacturers and retailers can supply it. But in our cutthroat environment it's unrealistic to expect everyone to do so voluntarily.
There is an important role for Government here. Labeling standards required for consumer goods sold in Canada should be strengthened. "Made in China" no longer suffices when components may come from half a dozen countries, all co-coordinated by a Hong Kong-based middleman. We need to move toward listing detailed information about the conditions under which goods are produced, including specific suppliers and plants.
Relying on companies to do this by themselves is a second rate solution. Canada has vast experience in tailoring regulations for consumer awareness as well as market flexibility. Governments, primarily Ottawa, need to take a stand. Some may argue that tightening labeling requirements to take into account working conditions and labor standards would be too cumbersome and intrusive. But this would be a disingenuous position.
We already insist on meticulous labeling. The list of ingredients on cereal boxes or frozen desserts would challenge an upper-year chemistry student. Detailed information about domestic-production chains allows government to guard Canadians' health, and it allows consumers and their watchdogs to look out for their interests.
We should be similarly concerned about the conditions others work under to produce the things that make our lives more enjoyable. In extreme cases of brutal despotism, there may be an argument for banning goods from certain countries. Favored nation status must have some teeth and meaning. The Jackson-Vanik amendments in the 1970’s to America’s MFN agreements helped free millions enslaved under brutal tyranny. At a minimum however consumers should have access to the facts. All participants should know the score. Get the information out there, and let everyone involved make their own decisions.
For the past twenty years Canada's international trade policy responded to one mantra "jobs, jobs, jobs." Canadians like to think of ourselves as global humanitarians. But we have not led at all in trying to formulate minimum international standards of labor laws, at least in those countries where our own businesspeople prosper. What we really need are minimum global labor standards accepted by international protocols of states with oversight done jointly by government bureaucrats and labor representatives. Sadly, however, we remain deaf to the growing evidence that globalization inhibits prosperity as often as it enhances it, and imposes poverty as often as it relieves it.
Canada has convincing moral authority in the world due greatly to our generous immigration policies. We must use that authority to make a difference to the billions crying out for fairness. The spirit of the legitimacy and authenticity of our experiment in civilized nation-building is dependant on it. If we don’t help show the way, and convince others to follow, the world may yet be confronted with the soul of the fiery embers from the hearts of the miners of a century ago leaping into a roaring blaze of global revolt.
Beryl P. Wajsman