From a Business Week piece on the AFL-CIO's filing against China's exploitation of workers: Even some ardent free traders think the AFL-CIO's petition must be taken seriously. "You can't just dismiss it as protectionist. In a market economy, wages are set by the free interaction between workers and management, which doesn't exist in China," says William A. Reinsch, the President of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents 300 large U.S. multinationals such as Boeing (BA ). Labor's argument is so elementary that it's astonishing no one has ever spelled it out in such detail before. The brief contends that China's well-documented labor repression allows its factory owners to pay less than they would if the government enforced its own labor laws. These savings in turn lower the price of China's exports to the U.S., giving it an unfair trade advantage -- much as a direct government subsidy to a factory owner would do. The truth behind this is one which to many workers is intuitive but remains inscrutable to the likes of Thomas Friedman: No trade is free. Relationships between trading nations, like relationships between employers and employees, take place in a context constructed by prevailing law, asymetrical power relations, and the real degree of autonomy for the actors. A "free trade" internationally which rewards exploitation of workers at home and abroad and drives down wages for everyone is as much a farcical freedom as an "economic freedom" agenda which privileges the opportunity of one mega-corporation to merge with another over the opportunity for one of its employees to get medical care for illness.


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