The Simple Way To Improve Chinese Labor Standards

GUANGZHOU, CHINA - FEBRUARY 13: (CHINA OUT) Customers view Apple products at Tee Mall on February 13, 2012 in Guangzhou, China.

Photo by ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

There are a lot of tough questions around the extent to which outside consumer pressure can be helpful in improving labor standards in foreign countries. But there is one step the US government could take that would be clearly effective. It was brought into sharp relief by this bit of sarcasm from Freddie de Boer:

Would Ira Glass ever allow his children, when grown, to work 60 hours a week? In those factories? In those conditions? Of course not.

Of course not indeed. But that’s why Chinese jobs are done by the children of Chinese people rather than the children of prosperous Americans. But perhaps the better question is would an American firm ever be allowed to hire a Chinese factory worker to work a regular American workweek in American conditions in accordance with American labor law? And the answer is no. But this is a public policy choice we’ve made, not a fact of the universe. Presumably all things considered many Chinese people prefer to live in China than to live in the United States. And presumably some Chinese workers who’d enjoy earning an American minimum wage and laboring in a workplace that’s up to OSHA standards aren’t productive enough to be worth employing. But it’s a country of a billion people, surely some of them if given the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the American legal system would leap at the chance. Not only do we have more stringent labor regulations, we even allow for free speech, free worship, and you can apply to become a citizen and vote and everything.

If some large share of China’s most-productive, most-ambitious workers were voting with their feet for the American Way then this would put considerable practical pressure on Chinese employers and the Chinese government to raise their game. And it seems to me that it would be in America’s interest to import the people and the factories along with the outputs. But it’s a little perverse to leave people trapped in low-income authoritarian countries, and then turn around and develop a bad conscience about buying the stuff they make toiling in bad conditions when those conditions are a consequence of being trapped in a low-income authoritarian country.