Wednesday, July 12, 2006

First Things First

Another TCS Daily article to point you towards. This one looks at how labor unions are affecting companies and employees in the developing world. It's not a very positive review. Now, I'm not anti-union, although I admit that I think union membership should be strictly voluntary and not a coerced part of any particular field of employment. They've served an important role in our history and culture. My dad was a Teamster, and we benefited from his membership, but I do remember that he would speak about how the union would sometimes demand unreasonable things, and how that would hurt the workers in the long run. That is pretty much the thrust of this TCS piece by Iain Murray. It seems that the union activity in poorer countries, countries that benefit greatly from Western investment, is mainly targeted at Western companies, despite the fact that conditions and wages at their factories far outclass those offered by local competitors. The local employers, whose employees labor in truly "sweatshop" conditions, for appalling wages, are given a pass, while foreign investors, who provide benefits that go beyond just higher wages, are being hounded into potentially leaving the countries altogether, to the detriment of all concerned, since foreign investment is improving the lot of so many in these developing nations:

Across the world, countries freeing up their markets to foreign countries are benefiting the most. In China, for example, the standard of living has increased so much over the past 20 years that the average Chinese person today is six times richer in real terms than before the reforms began. And large companies investing in the developing world bring other benefits, though. In addition to paying higher wages, their facilities are generally safer and healthier for their employees than those of local competitors. Their processes are also generally cleaner, so contributing to environmental improvement.
An example of a company that is being targeted for union bombardment is a company operating is Turkey, called Paxar, which is a "...U.S.-based textile company, owns a facility in Saray where it pays some of the highest wages to textile employees in the country -- in the top 2 percent -- employs over 500 people, and offers excellent health and safety conditions." Rather than being lauded for the improvements it brings to the local economy and working conditions, this company is being condemned for not being a union shop, despite the fact the employees themselves are not supporting the union bid:
The Clean Clothes Campaign, for example, has provided a facility on its web site to allow outraged members of the public to bombard Paxar's clients with letters expressing disgust at the company's failure to accede to the union's demands. The Campaign is known for greatly expanding the definition of a "sweatshop" from a facility offering inadequate local wages and dangerous conditions to include those otherwise safe and generous, but which prohibit union activity.
In my opinion, this is simply not logical. In this case, the only party actually benefiting from the change would be the union itself, union dues being the apparent primary goal. The union is demanding a 38% increase in employee wages. They can't possibly believe that by demanding such an increase they are doing the employees any favors. These employees already earn more than their peers. Forcing a wage increase of this magnitude would probably mean layoffs, as Murray says, "The Turkish textile industry is highly vulnerable to foreign competition; it lost 200,000 jobs last year." Worse still, the union could drive Paxar out of Turkey altogether, leaving nothing but the companies that the union isn't targeting--the ones whose working conditions currently make Paxar look like heaven on Earth. This isn't a good bargain for the workers.

This isn't to say that conditions shouldn't continue to improve in the third world, or that those companies seeking less expensive labor in foreign countries have "arrived" and should not continue to upgrade as local conditions are elevated. However, to target the companies doing it best, because they are not doing it better, while leaving the worst to carry on unmolested, simply doesn't compute. First things first. Focusing on the worst, to bring them up to the standard set by the best, and then gradually seeking to improve conditions as a whole seems a much more reasonable and reasoned approach. Like my dad said, unreasonable demands hurt the workers in the long run, not help them. That's supposedly what the unions care about, isn't it, helping workers?