Happy New Year! I’ll start off by thanking my lovely wife, Anne, for suggesting today’s topic. Over dinner last night, I told her about yesterday’s post, which dealt in part with the logistical and administrative impossibility of new trade deals like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) enabling Washington to regulate foreign labor standards adequately – even if it wanted to, which is far from clear.
Her response? How could anyone expect effective regulation of foreign labor markets when U.S. authorities have such difficulty regulating America’s home labor market? That’s a great question. It should deliver the coup de grace to the idea that new trade agreements can help ensure that American workers don’t have to compete against foreign counterparts who are not simply cheaper or unavoidably forced to endure poor working conditions due to low levels of socio-economic development, but who are unmistakably exploited.
As pointed out yesterday, many of the labor standards concerns generated by the TPP center on Communist-ruled Vietnam – which hosted 50,000 manufacturing companies as of 2011. How does that compare with the United States? In 2014, the number was 254,941. (I couldn’t find any data for establishments in Vietnam – a different statistical category than number of manufacturing companies.)
How many inspectors does the United States employ to regulate its own manufacturing base? At the federal level, the Labor Department’s Wage and Hours Division is now staffed by about 1,000 investigators. These are the officials who are responsible for making sure that domestic businesses properly classify and compensate full-time and part-time workers (along with independent contractors), pay required minimum wages, and observe other provisions of American labor law. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which aims to ensure safe workplaces, currently employs about 2,200 inspectors, and they conducted some 39,228 inspections in fiscal 2013. The states also regulate workplaces.
In 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s total workforce totaled 15,913, but that includes administrative, scientific and technical,and other employees, and I could not find a breakdown. Moreover, EPA inspections are by no means restricted to factories or even workplaces. And the states also maintain their own environmental agencies.
So how has this inspection force done? Well, Wages and Hours Division chief David Weil just told The Wall Street Journal that “There still are violations of our standard labor laws that are almost jaw-dropping.” Weil also explained that his agency no longer simply waits for worker complaints to initiate investigations because “we realized we’d never catch up to the problem.”
OSHA doesn’t seem to be able to file a valid “mission accomplished” claim, either. According to its website, during its four-decade existence, U.S. workplace fatalities have fallen by more than 65 percent and illness rates are down by 67 percent. It’s true, as OSHA points out, that the American workforce has nearly doubled during this period. But it’s also true that government policies aren’t responsible for all of the significant-but-not-complete progress on these fronts.
All this should be kept in mind by U.S. leaders, journalists, and labor rights supporters themselves as they offer or evaluate notions that new trade deals will – somehow – result even in comparably large or effective overseas regulatory regimes. If they do, and they’re honest with themselves and with the voters, they’ll conclude that the best way to shield U.S. workers from inadequately regulated, inequitable foreign competition is not to pretend that America has decisive influence over deep-rooted problems and conditions abroad. It’s to rely on Washington to focus on something that it can reasonably hope to control – access to its own market.