When pushing bad trade deals or trying to convince us that nothing can be done about the lack of wage growth or income inequality, the pro-multinational corporation pundit class will tell us that it is all globalization’s fault, and since we can’t stop globalization, there’s nothing we can do to help increase pay or level the playing field. But here’s what is important to understand: It is precisely because we can’t stop globalization that we should have more rules in place to protect working families, not just here in America, but all over the world. And for those who suggest that it isn’t possible, be clear on one thing: They are saying this to help the big businesses who exploit those workers. As Elizabeth Warren recently said: “Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who want to run this country like some private club.”
As someone who has spent most of my career working on domestic economic issues, it has become clearer and clearer to me in recent years that because of the globalization of the economy, you have to link the issues of worker exploitation around the globe to the problems working families here in the United States. There is a great deal we can do here to promote higher incomes and more prosperity for working families that would lessen the effects of the big technological and business changes driving the global economy — increasing the minimum wage, strengthening unions, paid family leave policies, a better educational system, expanded Social Security and retirement security, to name a few. But progressives in America also need to develop new policy initiatives and organizing strategies to deal head-on with multinational conglomerates setting up low wage or slave labor factories all over the world — not just for humanitarian reasons, but because competing with badly exploited workers worldwide drives down wages and working conditions for all of us.
This is why I have helped to co-found a new organization called AWARE: the Alliance for Workers Against Exploitation Everywhere. As the name suggests, we will be opposing worker exploitation all around the world, working with unions, the human rights community, women’s groups, the LGBT community, student organizations and the progressive community generally on issues around slave labor and other horrendous abuse of working people around the world. Here’s our website: allianceforworkers.org.
Our initial focus is going to be in the Middle East, where some of the abuses in terms of slave labor and discrimination of women and the LGBT community are among the worst in the world. As I wrote in a blog post last year on the issue of the lack of enforcement of trade agreements:
Two countries, especially remarkable to me in terms of the U.S.A. doing nothing about enforcing trade agreements, are Qatar and UAE. Both countries outlaw labor unions. Both countries have severe problems with human trafficking and slavery. Both have extremely discriminatory laws against both women and LGBT people — as a matter of fact, UAE makes the “crime” of homosexuality punishable by death.
According to the U.S. State Department, Qatar is one of the worst countries in the world in terms of human trafficking and slavery abuses, including well-documented reports of enslaved migrant workers dying at the rate of one every other day in 2014 during the construction of the World Cup infrastructure.
UAE withholds the passports of migrant workers so they can’t escape the dreadful conditions they are forced to live in — including living 15 to a small room and being forced to work over 80 hours a week. Both countries discriminate in the extreme against women, in the workforce and in their personal lives. There have been women jailed for “illicit sex” after being gang raped, and other women arrested for drinking before being raped. Women are fired by these countries’ state owned airlines for being pregnant or getting married, and are forced to live in company housing
The list of human rights and labor rights abuses that have been described by journalists and documented by the U.S. State Department goes on and on. And yet, these countries are members of the WTO and the GATT, big international trade organizations that are supposed to create a level playing field for trade. They are both big trading partners of the U.S.A. in general.
The reality of globalization does not mean we should give up on passing laws, and creating and enforcing trade agreements, that help workers in our own country as well as around the world. Quite to the contrary, globalization means just the opposite: there is all the more need to do so with these economic realities in place. Remember that quote above about anyone claiming that change is too hard has crawled into bed with billionaires? That would be exactly right. Now more than ever, American progressives should join with workers and progressives around the world to demand a stop to trafficking and slave labor; a stop to discrimination against immigrant workers, women, and the LGBT community; and a stop to trade deals with weak protections for workers, where even the weak protections are rarely enforced.