This article was originally published in the Winter 1997 issue of the Harvard International Review.
The term “globalization” has come to characterize so many aspects of the end of the 20th century that it is often taken for granted. The increasingly free flow of goods, services, and capital across national boundaries that is often subsumed under the term “globalization” has created challenges and opportunities for US workers.
Strong empirical evidence shows that countries which embrace globalization have higher rates of growth than those which try to erect barriers to free and open markets. Trade helps the US economy grow and provides many workers with high-skill, high-wage jobs. Export-related jobs pay about 15 percent more than the nation’s average wage. This does not mean, however, that all members of this or any other society benefit from globalization. Indeed, while the US economy as a whole will profit, and workers with the skills required by the global marketplace may succeed, those without the requisite skills may be displaced from their jobs or see their earnings fall.
As a matter of principle and policy, the US government must ensure that all workers share in the nation’s prosperity. Therefore, it is essential to identify which workers bear the burdens of globalization so that government can tailor the national labor market, education, and other policies to help them. The key intervention is investing in the skills of the US labor force. That means making good education and training available, especially to the three quarters of the population that do not complete four years of college. If the United States is to succeed and prosper in the global economy of the 21st century, its people must be able to acquire new knowledge and learn new skills at every stage of their lives.
In the short run, however, all workers’ skills cannot be swiftly and sufficiently up- graded, and local labor markets cannot be realigned instantly to accommodate those whose jobs have been displaced. That is why it is important for trade adjustment assistance programs, like those already administered by the US Labor Department, to provide career counseling, retraining, income and relocation support, job placement, and rapid-response services in the event of trade-related layoffs.
Just as the US government has an obligation to ensure that all of its citizens share in the benefits of trade, it is also vital that the United States press for improved global labor standards. The United States must work with its trading partners to raise standards and working conditions for all workers. As US citizens consume and compete with products from around the world, the nation has an economic and a moral interest in ensuring that those goods are not produced by workers suffering unfair working conditions.
Trade and the globalization of the world economy can and must be made to benefit everyone. This is why the United States supports a core set of international labor standards, which includes prohibitions on forced labor, discrimination, and exploitative child labor; as well as freedom of association and collective bargaining rights. Through the International Labor Organization, the World Trade Organization, and other mechanisms, the United States is committed to the principle that competitive advantage must not be gained through violations of human rights.
Such principles can also be successfully applied through voluntary partnerships among businesses, workers, consumers, and government. The US Labor Department, for example, has joined with the apparel industry in a campaign against sweatshops and child labor that has involved education, publicity, and consensual agreements. Although globalization presents challenges, a commitment to skills development and lifelong learning, as well as to core international labor standards can attenuate the dislocations that some US workers will experience. In the long run, all US citizens stand to benefit from an educated, well-trained work force competing in a world where all working men and women are treated fairly.