Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Free-trade Revisited

Becca chimes in:
I don't think that the way companies treat workers has to be considered a free-trade issue neccessarily. Sure, a contract is a contract, but if it contains anything illegal then it is not legally binding. Your example of a contract specifying daily whippings would be assault (not legal) and therefore null and void. The actual contract discussed in the article seems like it would be fraud, considering that the company has a reasonable expectation that the worker would not be allowed to stay in the country for the duration of the contract. However, who is going to sue the company for fraud if the workers don't know they have that option because they don't know their rights? I think that's the real issue here. Any worker (local or imported) should be able to learn about his rights and common practices, average wages for the trade, living expenses, etc. but it is an individual's responsibility to assert his own rights. This sounds like a fantastic opportunity for a non-profit organization or charity to educate domestic and foreign laborers so that they are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous bastards, er, employers.
I appreciate the comment, but I think I disagree a bit. And I didn't mean the 12-stroke lashing idea as a serious suggestion, but more a reductio ad absurdum. Of course it would be illegal. Not what I was trying to illustrate. More along the lines of: you can't always get what you want. Supply and demand and all that. Bonus question: are S&M clubs illegal? Hmmm...? Unfortunately, "Any worker (local or imported)" says it all. Everything is a free-trade issue, and the immigration situation, free-trade, and employer/employee relations are inextricably linked. Furthermore, it doesn't help at all that, as Ben has pointed out, we're not really talking about free-trade at all, more like politically motivated exchange. This is where libertarian ideals butt up against a world with sharp edges. It's all very disconcerting, and I don't like it one bit. It's all a very tangled, very political, mess. This is a huge ball of wax, but I thought I'd make a few comments. The visa status of the workers in question is contingent upon employment, and it is revoked upon loss of a job. This is key. What makes free and open markets so much more humane than command economies is not some mystical aura that permeates "democracies" or what-have-you. Life is tough. Everywhere. Contracts are broken all the time, even in "democracies" with rule-of-law. We can't possibly pursue every infraction using force of law. Practically speaking, it simply wouldn't work. What protects us far more is the simple fact that people have choices. This is the real issue, if you ask me. If one party abuses you, you are free to enter into relationship with another party. This tends to keep people at least a little bit more honest than they might otherwise be. When choice is limited, abuse tends to follow. Typically, it goes something like this: Worker: "I'm interested in the position you have advertised. Could you describe the responsibilities?" Employer: "Sure. The responsibilities are X." W: "That is all? You are sure there is nothing else? I won't be doing Y?" E: "Never, only X. When you have completed this, you'll be free to pursue other things. You look qualified, would you like the position?" W: "Sounds good. Sign me up." E: "Great! I'll get you your H2B visa." Later... Worker: "My visa needs to be extended. Could you sign some papers for me?" Employer: "I will sign your papers, but only if you do Y first." W: "But we had an agreement that I wouldn't be doing Y. I'd only be doing X. I'm almost finished, just as we had agreed, and I'd like to move on to other opportunities when I'm done." E: "I'm not signing that paper if you don't do Y." W: "But I'll be deported if you don't sign my paper." E: "That's your problem." This is how the shadow of coercion of the immigrant's home country follows him to this one. This is not idle speculation. I've seen it happen. It is not right. I would imagine there's also a lot of "show me your ta-ta's or your fired," as well, though I haven't encountered that personally. But it happens enough with citizens, I would imagine its far worse with immigrants, who don't just face the threat of losing their jobs, but also deportation. And I would imagine this would be talked about a bit less than the first scenario. The counterargument would simply be, "well, that's illegal isn't it? They can just sue, or complain, or whatever." Well, yes, they could. But as I said, the law doesn't generally work the way its supposed to. Making something illegal is a fairly ineffecutal way of preventing it from happening. The law is far less protection that we would like to believe, as is readily seen by the ineffectual "drug war" and border non-enforcement. (Which, actually, ought to embolden exploited immigrants, now that I think about it...) How many people have been killed by the very folks for which they've had a restraining order issued? Plus enforcement is the job of government, the single most unreliable institution in the world. Bureaucrats aren't particularly dependable. And in this case, the law is deliberately putting people in a vulnerable position, with another party having arbitrary power to send a person off to an awful, abusive place. Sure, there's "oversight," and people ought to "know their rights," but it doesn't help much in practice. There's a lot of coercion going on, simply as a result of the way the world works. And do we really want to be teaching potential immigrants dependency on the government for help? Or should we encourage them to take care of their own problems? The reason that "how companies treat their workers" becomes a free-trade issue is that, as you say, the workers are "imported." They are being imported because companies don't want to compete in local wage markets, just as manufacturers don't want to pay American wages and so move their factories overseas. I don't so much mind the manufacturing, because I know two things: number one, it opens up new opportunities here for higher productivity activities, and two, there are still a great many protected positions which simply can't be offshored. Choice is undermined for workers, but not overwhelmingly so, and there are a great deal of offseting effects. Not a perfect world, but it never is. On the other hand, there's immigration. A culture of coercion and lacking in ethics motivates immigrants to come here (actually, they typically just see it as a wage differential, but anyway...), which is understandable, but at the same time, it has the effect of undermining the "choices" of local citizens pretty much all the way to zero. Don't want to work on the same terms a third worlder will accept, who will accept them simply because they are slightly less awful than the conditions of the third world? That's fine, we'll just hire the third worlder instead. There aren't many positions protected from this effect, and with the numbers of immigrants we are seeing, the size of the economy cannot grow fast enough to swamp the effect out, either. Economic contraction isn't helping. Thus, as I'm starting to see it, "free-trade" in labor, and the practice of hiring foreigners to "do work Americans won't do" (which is an obviously dishonest argument that I'm not even going to bother with) doesn't so much export freedom as undermine choice, and import abuse and coercion in the process. I would like to export freedom abroad, through free-trade, competition, and open borders. But I don't think that this is what is happening in practice. I think in practice we are getting the opposite. And I would rather preserve liberty than undermine it. That's just the way I see it. But it's okay. The whole house of cards is tumbling down anyway. It's all coming to an end. Soon enough, we'll have bigger things to worry about.

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