• Merriea Mathew (India)

Universalization of worker rights and fair trade dynamics



The cry for worker rights in international trade is not a recent emergence, rather it is over a few centuries old. The incidence of convict labor as a part of labor migration that thrived in the colonialism era reinvented the concept of bonded labor in international trade. In 1927, the World Economic conference termed it as 'social dumping', as most nation-states were involved in the popular practice of replacing domestic factors with 'unfair' factors of production and thereby monopolizing the global trade markets. This 'pauper labor' problem brought the concept of worker rights to the forefront of fair trade. Despite this long history, the disturbing re-emergence of inhumane work culture dominating the consumerist world as we see in the Uighur region paints the same old, dire picture in new and vivid colors.

Why have century-long struggles failed to fructify the desideratum of humane working conditions in the labor market? In recent events, we find that the continuation of an indecent work environment transcends beyond the rationale of economic deterioration, rather it is the culmination of bottomless consumerism, which is manifested in high demand for fast fashion and cheap products. Further, the conceptual understanding of 'fair trade' is slowly being replaced by 'unfair trade', where labor rights are overlooked and the value of labor simply becomes the cost tag of labor hours.

The contentions behind worker rights emerged as developed nations decidedly created the ideal of fairness in the workplace, in the post-world war era. This trend emerged owing to the arguments of social injustice seen in most developing nations and as a support to the countries' domestic workers' concerns regarding their incompetency to provide cheap labor. Beyond the comparative advantage enjoyed by Third world nations in providing cheap labor, the greatest 'advantage' is the lack of legal framework in establishing a worker negotiation precedent. Most governments advertise the lacuna in the negotiating power of workers and the dearth of safety standards to bring in MNCs, in efforts to increase employment opportunities. Betterment of labor rights is centered around the achievement of effective collective bargaining systems, which is nearly non-existent in these countries. This is mostly because developing nations have around 90 percent of their workforce being employed in the informal sector of the economy, which is characteristic of its neglect of safety standards, non-adherence to working hour limits, and even employment of bonded labor.

Universalization of labor rights puts the onus on the replication of the ‘First world’ work environment in the presumedly 'unfair' third world nations. In effect, unfair labor practices deter economic growth similar to the effects of protectionist trade practices. Most governments turn a blind eye to the demeaning working conditions, to profit out of new market entrants that want to siphon off of the unregulated labor market. The prospects of working for a name-brand company, even a blue-collar job, is presented as a step up from agrarian manual labor. However, this blind eye toward labor regulations is both distressing the labor in developed nations and a human rights violation in developing nations. Here, the former seems to be the pressing force for change.

Nonetheless, the pressing question remains: can universalization of working standards improve the international trade arena? There is a highly supported notion in the market economy that high labor regulations at the governance level can obstruct market forces from reaching productive efficiency. When only numbered few economies are ardent implementors of labor regulations, the odds are that these countries become capital-intensive, that end up working off of the gig labor economy. But, once all labor economies adhere to basic working conditions, the differential preference in international production and trade becomes non-existent. Moreover, the reputational aspect of imposing fair wages and negotiated agreements on employment conditions far exceeds the goodwill creation for the corporate sector.

Furthermore, choosing the appropriate type of intervention that is least invasive to economic development requires planning and thought. Since most labor market violations are scattered in global patterns, government-level intervention is required for countries that are at the receiving end of exploitations. Corporate-level intervention, which most companies have implemented after the social media exposure of meager services provided by the child and bonded labor, is a rather convincing and effective manner of universalizing labor standards. Fulfilling a universal fair wage system, collective agreements, and the right to form associations could reduce such vulnerabilities in global trade. In this day and age, we need legislative mechanisms to form collective agreements that aim at reducing inequality and ultimately, extending standard labor regulations across all geopolitical borders.