Malaysian social imperialism?

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Sat Mar 4 05:07:53 PST 2000

On Wed, 1 Mar 2000, Rakesh Bhandari wrote:

> We have already seen how this idiom of labor rights has worked in the
> case of Cambodia; first as a condition imposed to secure a bigger
> quota and then when met, increase in quota denied anyway.

Rakesh, that was a very interesting article you posted on Cambodia, but it seems to me that it undercut your position as much as it supported it. If we accept the account at face value, it seems like a perfect illustration of your worst case scenario: an infuriating example of unfairness, a perfect example of pious words dissolving into self-serving, anti-foreign actions. But unless I'm missing something, everything that happened there was good for the workers. Their wages went up, their conditions got better. It might have been bad for entrepreneurs, but it was completely a boon for the workers. And since people in Cambodia still seem to believe in the possibility of the carrot, in spite of their disappointment; and since it's harder to take away privileges and wage raises than it is not to grant them in the first place; and ditto with the principle of inspection, and the principle of publicizing the labor code; it seems to me that there is every reason to believe that this experiment will continue to be good for the workers into the immediate future. Naturally, things would be even better if the US granted a quota increase. But even in its despite, I don't see one downside here for the workers so far. For me, this article seems to indicate that even if your worst fears are true about the complete blagardism of the AFL-CIO, the social clause on wages and working conditions will still have a surprisingly good effect on the lives of third world workers. And naturally, this goes double if American labor isn't in fact all bad. It makes it look like the paradoxical bad effects of the Harkin child labor law are an exception rather than the rule. What's remarkable to me is just how swift and thorough-going the improvement seems to have been when employers and the government thought there was something in it for them.

Two points on top of that. One, was it actually bad for the entrepreneurs? The writer implies that entrepreneurs paid higher wages and set up whole establishments only because they expected an increased quota, and so now that the quota hasn't come through, these uneconomical wages and establishments will all be cut back. And yet, there is no evidence of it. The article purports is dated lined the end of February -- three months after the disappointment of their quota hopes had become clear -- and yet it gives several examples of workers successfully fighting to expand their rights and owners shaking their heads and giving in. And even though this is a Wall Street Journal article, where reporters are drilled to pack in all the economic data an article will hold, there is no mention of an increase in business failures, not even impressionistically. This makes the reader wonder whether this improvement in wages and conditions might not have been actually cost free. Several writers have argued that if wages go too low they are actually counterproductive even from capitalists' point of view, and that when they are forced in such situations to raise them through government action, they find that productivity increases (from less turnover, higher morale, more incentive) more than cancel out the wage increases. This might well be one of those situations. Which would be one more vote for the social clause. Even if one doesn't like owners, there is no denying that a reform has a brighter future if it is in their long-term interest as well.

The second point of course is, can we take this article at face value? The writer has a clear agenda: he wants that show how American unions are unfair to foreign workers. I like reporters who can think and make an argument according to their lights. But it always raises the question of how far an advocate is slighting the side he thinks is wrong. And in this case, I can't help noticing that the reporter never quotes anybody on the UNITE side in any detail, which would allow them to cite the facts that might support their case. He only quotes the Cambodian trade minister paraphrasing the US trade representative for textiles who the author implies is paraphrasing Mazur. This is less than equal time even by generous standards.


__________________________________________________________________________ Michael Pollak................New York City..............mpollak at

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