Supporters of “Free Trade” argue that it gives Americans the chance to buy cheap goods that help stretch the family budget. It’s probably the one time you’ll hear the U.S. Chamber of Commerce showing any interest in the American family’s budget.
And it’s true: when you compare similar goods made here and abroad, there’s often a cost differential that can be very large or just a few dollars or pennies. American Apparel, which is now owned by Gildan Activewear, a Canadian company, points this out dramatically in their “Made in U.S.A.” shop where they present the domestically made item with its cheaper “global twin.” What the new American Apparel seems to be saying is that these goods are the same, so you should feel good about saving yourself some money and buying the import. That’s quite a departure for a company that started out wanting to rebuild the textile industry in the U.S.
But can there ever be a “global twin” to a product made in the U.S. of A.? No, American Apparel, there cannot. There is no such thing as a “global twin” unless your global supplier chooses to follow the same rules and laws in place in the United States.
Think about this: you’re driving to work. You’ll encounter stop signs, have to turn to avoid one-way streets, obey speeding laws, not to mention have insurance for your vehicle and a license to drive. You can’t just take the shortest route if it means cutting across someone’s lawn. Nor can you refuse to slow down when the light is red. The rules of the road might make the trip longer, but the intent is for you to arrive there without being a danger to yourself or others.
When it comes to free trade, American industries are competing against entire nations that don’t have our rules and standards. It isn’t that USA-made goods cost too much, it’s that imported goods cost so little because countries are letting manufacturers gouge their nations. American workers have a proud history of fighting to improve working conditions and strengthen communities, often through legislation that might have taken years to pass. Rules and laws about how to safely use toxic chemicals in production or how much workers are paid or whether companies can use child labor. How do you compete when the rules of operation are so vastly inconsistent? Short answer: you can’t.
Bangladesh is just one country with a huge trade deficit with the U.S. (in 2016, it was over $5 billion). Apparel workers in Bangladesh make about $68 a month or around 39 cents an hour (the U.S. minimum wage is $7.25 an hour). Bangladeshi workers are routinely beaten, abused and denied benefits if they try to organize unions. In 2013, over 1,100 Bangladeshi workers were killed (and hundreds are still missing) when a factory in Rana Plaza collapsed due to poor construction and unsafe working conditions. Two years later, the government says 80% of the factories are safe, but it bears noting that many of those indicted for the Rana disaster were government officials. Toxic chemicals used to process animal hides and fabric has turned the Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh into one of the most polluted in the world. No question: Bangladeshi workers deserve much better than they are getting.
Against this, U.S. manufacturers must compete. Some cynically argue that the way to level the playing field is to just get rid of our laws and regulations – that we should drop our standards to the lowest common denominator in the name of “competition.” It’s a cheap logic that ignores that there are always new places in the globe which are willing to offer even lower production costs than Bangladesh. One Chinese industrialist investing in Ethiopia bragged that for the price of what he paid one Chinese worker, he could hire five Ethiopians.
So, are American-made products worth their price? Absolutely. The price reflects the fair market value of a product made to standards that are fair to workers and the communities where factories operate. It will always cost more to compel a factory to make products safely and humanely so they won’t poison our lakes, rivers and air. So that children can play instead of being forced to work. So adults can earn living wages with dignity and basic health and safety standards. The price is an investment in ourselves, our family and our neighborhoods. And worth every penny.