Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I Wasn't Making It Up

A study by the International Labour Organization of 50 countries indicates that more than a quarter of the world's workforce works more than the ideal maximum of 48 hours.

Top of the list of the most overworked countries is...Peru. Yes, despite the popular perception of layabout Latinos, the study found that 50.9 percent of Peruvians work more than 48 hours per week.

Well it's striking that Peru is in very first place, I'm unsurprised that it's there or thereabouts. As I've described before, long, arduous working hours are the lot of the majority in Peru. The working week is six days long, with very few exceptions. And the most common work day is 10--12 hours in length, rather than eight. For those that must reply on informal work to get by, the day is as long as it takes to scrape together the required handful of soles.

The BBC report on the study says that:

The ILO blames the growth of service industries, such as tourism and transport, plus an expansion in informal working arrangements, for the excess of global working hours.

In general this is probably true. In the case of Peru specifically, another important reason is, ironically, the sheer lack of jobs. People who are employed in any kind of stable arrangement consider themselves fortunate, and are not in a position to demand kinder working hours or conditions. And many people are employed by small businesses that are themselves struggling to get by in the oversupplied marketplace. The hours worked by employees are driven by the hours the business needs to operate to break even.

This rather puts into context the concerns about labour standards in the trade agreement that Peru has recently negotiated with the United States. As reported in a previous post, a key element of the compromise reached by Democrat legislators and the Republican executive to allow the agreement to pass was a requirement for parties to ratify ILO labor standards. This didn't satisfy many grassroots Democrats, who angrily questioned whether the standards will be enforceable.

But while the criticisms were at times coated with a veneer of internationalism, they were, understandably, really about US internal politics and concerns. Not a lot of the critical reaction was motivated by an appreciation of Peru's position (or that or Colombia or Panama, about which I know a lot less).

Now, I fully agree that it's a good thing to have labour standards written into agreements. Jobs created by trade should be decent ones, and the right of workers to share in the benefits of increased commerce should be fundamental.

But Peru has already signed up to all the ILO principles and standards, and the general ideological mood -- unlike in the US -- is that they are fully desirable. For the meantime, however, these are less relevant than the need for more and better jobs.

It's true that the US State Department found that in Peru the existing labour regulations are poorly enforced, up to 30,000 people do forced labour, and tens of thousands of children are working.

But all this happens in an environment where people feel they have little choice. The government could certainly be more active in enforcing the employment regulations. But there's little it can do about the children sent off to wander the streets at all hours selling sweets and shining shoes. It's not multinational corporations exploiting these kids, but their unemployed mothers sending them out to help ends meet (you might ask where the fathers are, but that's another story altogether).

Peru is not Colombia, where trade union leaders have suffered the unfortunate setback of being frequently murdered (in part due to the real and imagined connections of trade union leaders with the FARC). Peruvian unions do exist, exert some muscle, and from time to time have some success in winning concessions. There's no question that the lot of miners, for example, could be greatly improved. But the most arduous conditions and worst abuses are suffered by those who can't count on a stable job, or have to work for themselves. I can't give you the stats at this point, but I would guess that the physical risks faced regularly by a Lima taxi driver would make a New York policeman blanche.

Only when there more genuine, decent sources of employment will the negotiation of a fair balance between employer and employee become the critical issue. Finding ways to raise productivity, add value to primary products and improve internal communications and infrastructure is vital to development. All these things happen in the presence of the kind of opportunities offered by stable access to large markets, which is what a trade agreement secures.

While countries like Peru shouldn't have to suck eggs and accept conditions as over-reaching as the intellectual property requirements in the original US deal, there would be very few who would argue that they'd be better off with no trade deal at all, or with an indefinitely stagnated one. In the absence of a trade agreement, extractive industries like mining and forestry (not to mention the drug trade) will carry along happily, there being generally few trade barriers to raw materials. And well-meaning people will continue to have little chance of influencing the labour standards in those industries.

Activists might beat up on Democrat leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Rangel for 'selling out' to the Republicans, but themselves have few constructive suggestions for how to support responsible development in countries like Peru. Say what you like about Pelosi and Rangel, but you could credit them with being influenced at least in a minor way by what is really needed for Peru to improve the living standards of its people.

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