The following is an essay I wrote recently for a sociology class on the nature of work in our society.
Imagining events and circumstances beyond our individual lives and routines is a useful exercise in perspective and cultural understanding; the hypothetical wonders and challenges of others may help in the everyday pursuit of meaning and purpose in our lives. These hypotheticals, however, being as they are in the realm of imaginary or outside our reality miss the impactful resonance of true events and circumstances both beyond our experience and enmeshed in our experience. Globalization, the “extension of economic activities across national boundaries, yielding networks of production, exchange and consumption that embed spatially dispersed regions within a single, highly interwoven system.” (Vallas, et al., 2009, p. 316) is one such true event, whose circumstances impact our lives whether we consider them or not. As with many circumstances of our world, globalization is contested between groups as to whether its impact is helpful or harmful. The image of contemporary globalization, long an ideal of mainstream economists, has been questioned reshaped by “…environmentalists, human rights activists and labor union members…” (Vallas, et al., 2009, p. 315). More generally, the struggle between the perspectives of workers and employers dictates the terms of globalization in today’s world.
The U.S., in partnership with other industrialized countries, has participated in competitive commerce for some time. This form of competition demands the acquiescence of developing or simply non-competitive regions throughout the world, as it operates on the basics of neo-classical economics; supply and demand and comparative advantage. These principles aspire to describe a pure system of interaction between humans and their respective land and culture, where supply is furnished from those who can provide it with relative ease and low cost and demand from those who recognize the product to benefit themselves. The concept of this comparative advantage may be a misnomer when it is investigated down to the bodies providing it, however. The people who provide product at a relatively low cost do so without the benefit received by the demand-side actors. “…the U.S. Department of Labor has actually found that most-61 percent-apparel establishments in the city of Los Angeles exhibited these kinds of multiple violations, including non-payment of minimum wages or overtime pay and violations of fair hours regulations…similar patterns have been found in other large metropolitan areas.” (Vallas, et al., 2009, pp. 332-333)
The question of why those involved in production have and continue to participate in a system which appears to compromise benefit to themselves comes from the greater perspective of globalization; how it forms and sustains a workforce and how the people in the workforce are compelled to remain. The usual suspects; business owners aside, the government has participated in globalization in this manner in the past decades as well. This partnership toward an end which supports competition for U.S. firms on a global scale is one which speaks to the need for acquiescence of developing regions. “Beginning in the late 1970’s, however…the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the World Bank…[were] reconceived as one of fostering the spread of market-based economic systems throughout all quarters of the world. As a result, developing nations…have been compelled to place their economies at the disposal of global markets.” (Vallas, et al., 2009. P. 318)
This pressure on foreign markets and their workers may in fact nurture the seed of the American dream for immigrants; while their developing country is struggling under the onus of the pressure of globalization, the U.S. may appear relatively golden. This creates a pool of workers in America whose standards are far below those born and raised here. This situation of policing supply and demand is one which fosters competition and supports the growth of firms and the influx of hopeful immigrants seeking something better than the situation at home. “And employers know that the least desirable jobs provide so few rewards that that it is hard not to grow discontented-the reason that a propensity for subservience is likely to strike the employer as a particularly desirable trait.” (Waldinger, et al., 2003, p. 146)
These arms of globalization bring up the argument of its presence in the U.S. if not worldwide. Employers and the government have created a marketplace in which jobs are provided to workers at low wages and constant threat of outsourcing, thus, who wags the proverbial dog? If firms with their relative flexibility of movement, choose the playing field given demand for jobs and relative competition among workers, is democracy still a player? “…globalization reinforces the asymmetrical nature of employment relation, as large corporations find it possible to operate on a worldwide landscape even as workers are confined to their local communities.” (Vallas, et al., 2009, pp. 328-329)
Here again is the relative perception of American dream. When workers willing to labor in harsh conditions are of high value to competitive businesses on U.S. and foreign soil, the potential for the growth and sustainability of our own workers is compromised by the growing asymmetry, local and global. “The greater mobility of capital and other financial assets has often enabled global businesses to impose harsh terms and conditions of employment on workers within particular regions, for workers often have few alternative means of survival to which they can turn.” (Vallas, et al., 2009 p. 319)
This reality of a rush to the bottom; an outsourcing and winnowing of the boots of potential to fill on U.S. soil no longer fosters the American dream for Americans, but rather rips it apart, doling it out to workers and countries for whom any semblance of its former glory is enough.
Globalization, to its definitions in today’s world, needs a purity of character. The cry for unfettered trade; pure markets in which competition can thrive may support the growth of our firms and employers, benefits employers in competition with each other, but our workers have and continue to experience the squeeze of commerce on their wallets and their potential for growth. This loss of human capital; human growth, a sustainable capital, speaks to the problem with purity in the marketplace. Humans are not pure, we are complex and messy and fickle. This is perhaps our strength and our weakness; it is certainly our right. Casting globalization and its image on the world is a fine exercise in theory, but in practice and examination by the whole of its actors is falls apart. Labor in America and the rest of the world is made up of people, messy and ever-growing. This is perhaps the main argument against the greatness of globalization as it is in today’s world; that it’s benefits do not extend regularly to the whole of its actors, and those actors willing to participate in production are limited resources. “Immigrants are wanted because they aspire to employment standards that do not match U.S.-born expectations; however, no good thing lasts forever…In the short run, immigration solves the problem it was designed to handle-the procurement of workers willing to fill the jobs no one else wants. But in the long run, it reproduces the original dilemma in intensified form-as the second generation may have to start where the first generation began, but will surely aspire to much more.” (Waldinger, et al., 2003, pp. 227-228)
Contemporary globalization speaks to the power of human ingenuity, our ability to dream, our proclivity to extend our reach beyond our grasp. It is, in its essence, a human creation which seems to foster human potential. However, the asymmetry between workers and employers which has arisen in the past decades of commerce has destroyed that potential for the current practice of global partnership. It now harms the very people who sustain its progress and in so doing, threatens its own future. Trade, as with any other collaboration is made up of people, who given time and resources will grow and gain new perspective. Given that the people who sustain globalization in today’s market are limited, contemporary globalization is limited as well. A restructuring of its image may sustain its progress, if it is the will of its actors. Time will tell.
Vallas, Steven P., William Finlay, and Amy S. Wharton. The Sociology of Work; Structure and Inequalities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Waldinger, Roger David, and Michael Ira Lichter. How the other half works immigration and the social organization of labor. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003. Print.