The cost of cheap labor

In a very interesting way, the immigration quandary poses a deep question about the nature and viability of American democracy as we know it.

On the one hand, Americans continue to view citizenship within the nation-state as a prerequisite to the full enjoyment of the rights, privileges and responsibilities that have come to characterize the American way of life. On the other, the basis of our economic system seems to require labor input at conditions of less than perfect liberty. Whether in the form of outsourcing jobs abroad or the tacit agreement between government and corporate America to turn a blind eye to undocumented workers, we find ourselves deriving a large part of our livelihoods and consumer goods from cheap labor.

As it plays abroad, we attempt to break down the door to markets such as China, and open our markets to goods from these countries, yet find ourselves compromised when it comes to demanding that these countries respect the labor rights of their citizens. We are loath to insist as a precondition of trade that China adopt minimum wage, maximum workweek and worker safety standards, because we are attracted to the price at which we can purchase labor and goods that only quasi-slave labor can afford. We have made the pragmatic decision in the past to form relationships with repressive regimes and therefore secure oil and other resources, only to have it bite us in the rear later on down the road.

At home, we have a tough time speaking with one voice about illegal immigration and its potential pitfalls because we are in love with the strong work ethic and skills we can employ at cheap wages — wages that are depressed by the fact that undocumented workers have few options and cannot complain about low pay and poor working conditions without fear of deportation.


Williams can be heard daily on Sirius/XM Power 169 from 7 to 8 p.m. and 4 to 5 a.m.

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