Dallas Morning News: The United States has long opposed sweatshops around the globe. So who could possibly have a problem with China's plan to protect workers' rights in a nation where most live on the edge of poverty?
The answer is foreign corporations, including American ones, doing business there. Recently proposed labor rules, they contend, will increase wages and threaten additional foreign investment in China.
This reaction is troubling. China has a long legacy of economic and human rights abuses; less abusive labor laws are long overdue.
Economic globalism works when workers aren't solely low-cost production fodder. If workers become fodder, the backlash is clear and harsh. That's why recent World Trade Organization gatherings have ended in deadlock and confusion and why misguided protectionist sentiment is gaining momentum around the globe.
Rather than issue dire warnings, foreign corporations would be better served to shape a competitive strategy that doesn't begin and end with cheap labor. China is a heavy exporter, aided partly by its artificially strong currency.
But China badly lags as a consumer of foreign goods, in part because too many people are too poor to purchase them. China wants domestic consumer demand to play a greater role in economic growth. But that will be hard to accomplish without improving the purchasing power of average citizens, which includes giving workers a greater voice in their destiny.
Yes, China must live up to its obligations as a member of the World Trade Organization. The Chinese government, for example, must be held accountable for protecting intellectual property rights, developing a more transparent economic system and eliminating discriminatory trade barriers. Those are serious impediments to an industrializing nation. But so is an abusive labor system.
As with much in China, the devil is in the details of the labor changes, which are still pretty vague. Nonetheless, foreign corporations need to understand that encouraging labor reform is not irrational. In fact, it is essential for China and can be done without replicating Europe's overly bureaucratic labor laws.