A New York Times editorial today on trade policy says:
"To win Democrats' support, the White House will have to accept some of their demands for stronger labor provisions in future trade accords. Bans on forced labor and child labor, and similar mandates, are laudable goals. But Democrats who propose minimum-wage rules have to recognize that what is low pay for Americans may pull a family out of poverty in a less-developed country."
This is sophistry - the well-known debating trick of the "straw" argument. Pretend your adversary is advocating something ridiculous they are not advocating, and then demolish the argument, implying your adversary is really out to lunch, since "their" argument is demolished so easily.
I challenge the New York Times Editorial Board to name one Congressional Democrat who doesn't "recognize that what is low pay for Americans may pull a family out of poverty in a less-developed country." If they can't name even one, then they are making a strawman argument.
Let's agree that $7.25 an hour - the new minimum wage in the United States, if Congressional Democrats have their way - is a low wage in the United States. Presumably, the lowest legal wage is a low wage.
Is there one Congressional Democrat who doubts that a poor worker in Bangladesh would think she was doing pretty well if she could land a factory job in Bangladesh for $7.25 an hour?
Is there one Congressional Democrat who has advocated that our trade policy should try to force a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour on Bangladesh?
Is there one Congressional Democrat who advocates international wage standards (not so many of those in the first place, most have emphasized bans on forced labor, child labor, and guaranteeing the right to organize, already enshrined in international agreements, although, unlike trade agreements, these are mostly unenforced) who thinks such standards should ignore the fact that what constitutes poverty varies from country to country?
It's pure silliness to argue that talking about wage standards means ignoring that poverty is relative.
Even in the U.S., we have absolute and relative standards. We have the federal minimum wage, which is an absolute standard (although there are some unfortunate exceptions), and there are state and local minimum wages and "living wage" ordinances, some of which take into account the fact that living costs are different in different parts of the country.
In the international context we can also have relative and absolute standards.
On the relative side, we could require that every country we trade with have and enforce a minimum wage, without specifying what that wage is. Obviously, that would only be a partial reform since the wage could be set absurdly low even relative to local living standards, but in some places it would still be a meaningful reform, because in some places there is no minimum wage of any kind, and in more places no minimum wage is enforced, and this would be a lever for activists in the given country to press the issue.
One could strengthen such a requirement by insisting that the minimum wage reference a national poverty standard (we could start by insisting that our own minimum wage in the U.S. keep workers out of poverty.)
Since there are some absolute measures of global poverty, one could also have absolute standards. For example, the World Bank has used a global standard of $2 dollars a day to describe people living in poverty. The World Bank's use of this standard has been widely accepted. There is no reason, for example, that we couldn't insist that every worker in the global supply chain for every commodity sold in the United States be paid at least $2 a day. If we can deny access to U.S. financial networks to terrorists, we can deny access to U.S. trading networks to those who fail to meet international standards for workers' rights.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that these reforms would be a panacea for all the problems of global trade relating to living standards. I give these examples to demonstrate that there is no contradiction between talking about international wage standards and recognizing that what constitutes "poverty" varies from country to country.
-- Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy
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