The Case For Globalized Labor

This article making the case for the globalization of labor appeared in Salon and is archived below.

May 1, 2006
The Case For Globalized Labor
It is economically and morally wrong for the world’s poor immigrants to be locked out of work in the richest countries.

By Stephan Faris

My house in Nairobi had four large bedrooms and big windows that overlooked the cascading terraces of my garden. I had a nanny for my son, and a maid who cleaned the floors daily. She washed my laundry in a plastic tub. A watchman patrolled the grounds from sunset until dawn, and a daytime gardener tended to a vegetable patch and rows of tropical flowers. I afforded all this on a freelance journalist’s budget, paying each one of my four workers about $110 a month. When I went out for dinner, I often spent more on my main course than on my staff’s combined daily pay.

My lifestyle in Nairobi, where I lived until a year ago, was not unusual. Most of the Americans and Europeans I knew had similar arrangements. We drew Western salaries and paid African wages. We hired help because we could afford to, and they worked for us because they had little other choice. We offered competitive salaries by Kenyan standards, and they were too poor, unskilled and not well enough connected to wrangle a visa to countries where their jobs would be better paid.

Those who squirm at the idea of having servants should consider that there’s little moral difference between me and my maid, and those who buy a washing machine whose low cost depends on other people’s deflated wages. We’ve globalized capital, but not labor. A washing machine manufacturer can cash in on China’s low wages, but the Chinese factory worker is barred from taking a boat to seek better pay. He’s forced to sell his labor at much lower than the global market value. Both my maid and the factory worker would prefer to work for Western wages. But they can’t because of immigration restrictions. The biggest difference between me and the person with the washing machine is that the relationship between my clean laundry and my maid’s low wages was visible every day.

There’s a moral stink to granting different rights based on criteria that are becoming increasingly arbitrary. Mass immigration is knocking down ancient national identities. A Frenchman’s parents could easily be Moroccan or Senegalese. Being British does not exclude also being Kenyan, Jamaican or Pakistani. Even countries like Italy and Ireland, which until a generation ago were nations of emigrants, are seeing a blurring of their national identity as the children of Poles, Albanians and Senegalese stake their claims to their adopted countries.

The United States, a nation of immigrants since its founding, has an even weaker claim to keeping the gates shut. Should a baby born in Tucson, Ariz., automatically enjoy better opportunities than one born in Cancun, Mexico? My wife, who is Italian, gave birth in Rome. To pass my American citizenship to my son, I had to prove I had lived in the U.S. for at least five years, two of them after the age of 14. As part of the proof, the consular officer asked me about the vegetation in Arizona. Had I been female, the requirements would have been the same — unless I wasn’t married, in which case one year of continuous residence would have been enough. Is citizenship no different than a private club with arcane rules for admission?

From a global perspective, modern immigration policy isn’t much different than apartheid, with the passport replacing the racially classified pass card. The parallel isn’t accidental. Hendrik Verwoerd, apartheid’s prime architect, modeled the system on national divisions. He wanted to achieve white supremacy by dividing South Africa into separate countries. In Verwoerd’s apartheid, blacks wouldn’t be denied the right to vote, travel, work or start a business. Not in the “homelands” they would be assigned to, anyway. In white-dominated South Africa, however, they would be treated like any other immigrant. The government even went as far as granting some of these regions their “independence,” stripping their residents of South African citizenship. In this view, the biggest difference between apartheid and our current system is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with existing ones.

From the standpoint of economic theory, liberalizing the flow of labor is no different from liberalizing trade. Both redistribute a nation’s wealth, with a net positive effect. The difference is that liberalizing trade disproportionately benefits richer countries, while easing immigration restrictions would help the world’s poor.

Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard, estimates that a worker in the first world earns 10 times more than someone with similar qualifications in the third. Even a light loosening of immigration restrictions, Rodrik argues, would provide a far bigger boost to the world’s poor than knocking down all the famously crippling agricultural subsidies. After all, for many in those countries, their biggest asset is their labor, and the current system forces them to sell it at much lower than market value. If free trade is a tide that lifts all boats, then so is free labor. But this time, the smallest boats get the biggest boost. If we’re going to ask countries to let in our goods, we should be willing to let in their workers.

Abolishing visa restrictions may be an impossible political sell. The poor and unskilled in Europe and America would confront competition from new immigrants, who would bring with their willingness to work a host of cultural change. But the same argument could have been made against the abolishment of slavery or apartheid, both of which took decades of work and preparation to overturn. It’s worth considering the scale of the inequality under the current system. The U.S. poverty line, defined by the Census Bureau in 2005 at $10,160 for individuals under 65, outstrips the per capita income of every African country. There’s no reason our poor should stand on the backs of people who can’t get enough to eat. If we don’t want them coming here, we should get serious about helping them over there.

Nor should globalizing labor necessitate dismantling labor laws. A nation can continue to protect its workers while letting new ones in. I now live in Rome, and still have a full-time nanny for my son. We invited her from China where my wife was working, using an exception in Italy’s immigration laws. She now works under Italy’s national contract for domestic laborers. We provide food and lodging, pay a Western salary and taxes that give her access to the national health plan. If she works in the country long enough she will qualify for a pension. Her disposable income this year will likely be higher than mine.

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