Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Importing Poverty

This is the sort of thing that gives Conservatives reason to sneer at Liberal societies. When Spanish police raided textile sweatshops in MatarĂ³, Spain, near Barcelona, and freed hundreds of Chinese workers, the immigrant workers, many of them in Spain illegally, hit the streets. They picketed not the poor conditions that they were working under, but the authorities for intervening. The Chinese are upset that they aren't being allowed to work illegally for long hours and low pay, because those pesky Euro-zone labor laws are keeping them from jobs that would horrify Spaniards, but are better than they could get in China. Of course, its those same European laws that allow them to protest in the street without them being simply rounded up and unceremoniously shipped back to China, but that doesn't count.

As ludicrous as the situation seems, there support for the idea that the willingness of Chinese laborers to be virtually locked into their workplaces and work seven days a week should be emulated worldwide. Pedro Nueno (I don't know that I've spelled that properly), a Spanish economist, says that European labor laws must be changed to allow for workers in developed nations to work under the same conditions that third world workers labor under. Twelve-hour days and low salaries should be the norm, he says. Otherwise, more and more jobs will depart for the Far East. The solution, it seems, to the exportation of jobs is the importation of poverty.

I understand the logic, but the idea that setting worldwide workplace policies around the idea that the poorest nations in the world must remain uncompetitive in a global labor marketplace seems like a recipe for a true new feudalism, where you have an aristocracy that owns all that they survey, and a peasantry that owns little, other than their bodies. If 60 plus hour workweeks and minimum wage salaries become the norm in the developed world, that might remove some of the incentive to shift jobs overseas, but that would require a catastrophic crash in the cost of living to be workable. What do we do when jobs start moving to Africa, where many poor people scrape by on a dollar or two a day? Granted, it likely won't come to that soon. Western consumer economies operate on having a respectable proportion of the population making enough money to buy consumer goods. If the working class of the society finds itself making $20,000 (or less) annually, there won't be many people able to buy the new cars or the big-screen televisions. But there was a point in time when the economy didn't need a large or sustainable middle class, and it's a fool's idea to think that the movers and shakers won't adapt their business models to work within that structure, if we go back to a system where subsistence wages are the widespread norm. While it's fashionable to complain about being oppressed by "the man" here in the developed West, a return to company towns, scrip and wages so low that the longer you work, the greater the debt you amass to your employer would REALLY give people something to complain about.

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