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Everybody profits from fair-labor standards

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KAI RYSSDAL: The head of the World Trade Organization said today he’s got a good feeling the latest round of global negotiations are going to work out just fine. Pascal Lamy added, though, that the U.S. will have to make some concessions. And he said he’d love to see things wrapped up before President Bush’s trade negotiating authority expires at the end of June.

That authority’s known as fast-track. It lets the White House make deals Congress can’t really change. Democrats on Capitol Hill have a list of things they’d like from the President in return for extending that authority. Like attaching fair labor standards to international trade agreements. Commentator Robert Reich says they’d be good for both sides.

ROBERT REICH: The labor standards shouldn’t be too high for developing nations to achieve. After all, if we require their workers to have the same wages or working conditions as Americans, jobs won’t go there. That’s called protectionism.

One alternative is to borrow from the International Labor Organization — and bar slave labor, forced labor, and the labor of very young children. As well as recognize the right of free association, which means the right of all workers to form unions.

Much of the world already recognizes these “core” labor standards, and it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to require all our trading partners to do so as well.

We should also push developing nations to raise their labor standards as their economies grow. One possibility would be to require that they set a minimum wage that’s half their median wage. So as their economies grow and their median wages rise, more of their people will share the gains from trade.

America would benefit in two ways. First, more of their people could then turn around and buy our exports. Second, these nations would develop larger middle classes, providing political stability and laying the groundwork for democracy.

Of course, this sort of requirement would be hard to monitor and enforce. Most developing nations don’t have minimum wages to begin with, and don’t keep careful track of what people are paid. So we might have to help them. But this would be true of almost any labor standard.

Market fundamentalists will object that establishing any minimum wage in any developing nation will force some very poor workers out of jobs and into the black market. But that’s what they said almost 70 years ago, when America first established its own minimum wage.

A minimum wage, like health and safety standards, is the hallmark of a civilized society.

Maybe the biggest hurdle is that this requirement will force us to set and keep our own minimum wage at half our median, which would be about $7.50 in today’s dollars.

Yet presumably, we have as much interest in developing a stronger middle class here in the United States as we do elsewhere around the world. Don’t we?

RYSSDAL: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He was Labor Secretary under President Clinton.

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