I often hear union leaders lamenting that they are seeing their industry’s jobs go overseas (which is true in most cases), generally to countries with lower wages and labour standards. Their response, however, seems odd to me. All too often they seem to call for protectionist measures (in the forms of tarriffs and subsidies) to stem the flow of jobs o/s by making local industry more cost competitive. This, IMHO, does not solve the long-term issue.
To my mind it seems the best way to deal with this problem long-term is to raise wages and labour standards in the countries to which the jobs are flowing. This is better for the overseas workers as it improves their conditions and lives, and it is better for local workers because as the overseas costs go up they become more cost competitive naturally (rather than through artificial market interventions).
Of course, that’s a long-term vision – what to do in the short-term? Measures still need to be put in place to stem the tide, and these may take the form of tariffs and subsidies. But whilst these are in place, the work should be done to bolster workers worldwide, rather than focussing solely on local issues. In all fairness, I’m sure this is happening on many levels – the union movement worldwide has always shown exceptional solidarity, which is why I find it strange that when it comes to issues such as this they take an approach which, ultimately, doesn’t serve either side.
One obvious problem with this approach is that consumers will lose out unless something is done to balance corporations’ greed. What we have seen over the past decades is that as labour standards decrease, prices still continue to go up, lining the pockets of corporate executives and their, mostly institutional, investors. If the worldwide union movement was to make significant gains in labour standards in majority world countries, the base price of goods is likely to go up. Corporations are then likely to push their prices up to maintain, if not increase, their margins, further fleecing the public of their hard-earned cash.
How to handle this, short of intense government regulation which is likely not to be supportable in the current climate of corporate control, is the tough question, and one that I have been pondering for some time. I think the first step is that the public has to realise that without us, as consumers, corporations have nothing. They serve us, providing us services. But somehow the collective psyche has been twisted into believing that the opposite is true. We are so indoctrinated in the capitalist ethos that we don’t see this simple reality. Without workers, and without consumers, corporations have zero power. Money is a construction of our own making, and it’s power is the same. There are alternatives available to us.
But we may not need to go that far. If we recognise that capital doesn’t control us, we, collectively, control the capital, maybe we can get some way towards curbing corporate power over us, and over our government. You may aski: How do we control capital? We are consumers – it is our money that becomes the capital that ends up in the rich pockets. We are investors – superannuation is the biggest single chunk of money in the Australian financial market; if we exert control over where and how our super goes to work we can effect real change. We are voters – we give our power to government; we can effect change in government by using our vote, and using our democratic rights of dissent, letter-writing, talking to a local member… and the list goes on.
These are just some of the ways that we can be engaged within the current structures to effect real and lasting change in our own countries that will help not only our local workers and public, but can have a positive impact on workers and citizens overseas, if we think globally while acting locally in what we fight for.