RecensionsBook Reviews

Labor Standards in the United States and Canada by Richard N. Block, Karen Roberts and R. Oliver Clarke, Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2003, 175 pp., ISBN 0-88099-236-0.[Record]

  • Christopher J. Albertyn

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  • Christopher J. Albertyn
    Ontario Labour Relations Board

This short work has the potential to be rather important. It is a seminal effort to systematically compare the labour standards of two countries. There is a lot of material on the labour standards of particular countries given, for example, by the ILO, but this is an attempt to measure and quantify the labour standards of two countries. The book appears at a time when the transfer of jobs from the U.S. to other countries, mainly in the third world, is a political issue in the coming U.S. presidential election. Opposition to the loss of jobs has taken two forms: reactionary and progressive. The reactionaries assert nationalist interests, wanting American jobs to remain in America. The other, progressive view, which also questions the flight of jobs to third world countries, is more sophisticated. Its advocates do not necessarily oppose free trade, they say that trade must be fair. They don’t claim that jobs should remain in America because they belong to American workers, as the reactionaries do. They say the countries, which take the jobs, should have equivalent, or fair, labour standards. Where labour standards are low, trade becomes unfair and the transfer of jobs to those countries is arguably unjust. The linking of labour standards to trade, the demand for fair trade rather than free trade, is the progressive response to the loss of manufacturing (and increasingly, service) jobs to countries of the third world. The political debate of these issues needs a reliable empirical method to compare labour standards. This book offers such a method. In the early part of the work, the authors provide a background and literature review of models and texts which try to address the complex link between trade and labour standards. They make reference to the available research and they explain “the lack of theoretical and empirical consensus on the relationship between labour standards and trade” (p. 32). They talk of the sources of labour standards and the methods of their application. We tend to accept the notion that third world countries, which are soaking up the jobs we lose in North America, have lower labour standards. No doubt this is probably true, but we reach this conclusion on the basis of some general conception we have of the conditions under which the workers of different countries work. Our comparison of the labour standards of different countries tends to be based on a random assortment of information of the differences. The comparison is neither rigorous nor scientific. What this book does is to make a first, I think important, step of trying to define standards of evaluation which may be used generally and systematically to compare the labour standards of one country against another. Rather than relying upon our ‘gut feel’ evaluations, the authors endeavour to define a set of parameters and measures for assessing the relative labour standards of different countries. They do not suggest that they have arrived at a definitive set of measures and indices; they see themselves as starting a dialogue among comparative labour relations researchers, aimed to hone and refine the evaluative standards which should be used to compare the labour standards of one country against another. They offer some reliable measures for making the comparisons: empirical measures, which can themselves be tested. The authors are not too ambitious. After defining the labour standards which are the subject of the study, and explaining the sources for the standards, the authors develop their paradigm of the appropriate evaluative benchmarks, and they then explain the weighting to be applied to each of the measures they use. Once they have done …