This much we do know: The US government cannot be trusted to enforce labor standards, since it has repeatedly failed to do so under already existing laws. One especially sickening example occurred in 1994 when Suharto still ruled Indonesia. The Clinton Administration certified the regime's improving labor policies--thus keeping Indonesia eligible for trade preferences--at the very moment Suharto was smashing a promising new labor federation, imprisoning scores of its brave leaders and charging them with subversion.
An initial labor code should, obviously, require all US multinationals to identify the names and addresses of offshore factories and their subcontractor plants, the owners and principal investors. Next, the corporations would answer some fairly simple questions about each factory: the number of workers and what they make, the base pay for production workers, the factory's labor costs as a percentage of its value-added output.
Finally, for every production site, the company would be required to certify the existence of well-accepted labor standards or to explain why its factory ought to be granted an exemption. Does the workplace comply with the host country's own labor laws? Does it comply with the International Labor Organization's "core labor standards," guaranteeing the right to organize, forbidding child labor and forced labor? If not, why not?
A more controversial suggestion would require each company to attest that its industrial workers do at least receive a "living wage," that is, income sufficient to provide for basic subsistence in terms of their own country and culture--food, housing, clothing, health and education. If not, these powerful companies would have to explain why such a minimal benchmark for modern industrial life is too expensive for them.
No one can demand that American companies alter another society's laws and customs, but once again we are separating bad guys from innocent players. It is not always the foreign government that suppresses labor rights but sometimes American companies who insist on it. My favorite example is the US semiconductor industry's production platform in Malaysia--famous names like Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard. At their insistence, the electronics sector operates union-free, though Malaysia has vigorous, independent unions everywhere else.
A typical reaction is: Do these foreign workers really want or need our help? Despite sometimes harsh conditions, aren't they better off with the jobs and grateful? It is true that many of the young people in poor countries, entering industrial life for the first time, are quite bewildered by their new circumstances. They have migrated from the desperate poverty of rural villages, eager for wage incomes. Many of them do not even grasp what a union is, much less understand the broader rights accorded to workers elsewhere in the global system.
What many of them do understand, however, is that they are being exploited. They don't have to be told this by do-gooders from America. They know it from the sordid working conditions or from meager wages and their own disappointed hopes. That's why there are so many wildcat strikes--thousands of spontaneous strikes that occur regularly across developing nations, not organized by any unions but by workers themselves. Angry workers even strike in China, despite the real risk of imprisonment.
These sporadic, local protests are seldom mentioned in the US press, but together they constitute an optimistic statement about our common humanity.