Playing the Global Piano
Anybody that competes with slaves becomes a slave.
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
Headlines from the 1990s make one scratch one's head in disbelief that this is actually the end of the twentieth century. On one day in 1993 we were told that 282 illegal Chinese immigrants were shipwrecked along the coast of New York where they were supposed to take work. It was reported that they would be paid approximately one dollar per hour. Worse, to pay off their passage the immigrants were to assume a status equivalent to that of indentured servants. On another day in August of 1995 it was reported that seventy-two Thai workers living in El Monte, California, were being held behind barbed wire in virtual slavery. They produced garments for a small sweatshop that received orders from brand-name clothiers. This type of subcontracting was used here and in other cases to provide large firms with cheap garments that can be manufactured without regard to compliance with state labor standards. On still another day, the documentary news program 60 Minutes reported that migrant workers in some of Florida's orange groves were held against their will in debt peonage. These extreme cases illustrate some of the worst labor abuses afoot in the country. Such situations are most common among illegal immigrants who are afraid to protest for fear they will be deported. Although unusual, these and numerous other instances clearly indicate that unbridled capitalism has no great respect for human rights. Moreover, these examples underscore the threat that global competition poses for Americans at large.
In a world where it is alleged that children are increasingly being sold into slavery, where many poor Asian women are physically forced to prostitute themselves, and where Chinese prisoners produce toys for American toddlers, it is clear why the wholesale integration of global commerce rekindles protectionist sympathies. The fear is that trade will erode American labor standards. While some analysts, like Jeremy Rifkin and Paul Krugman, insist that America's diminished expectations owe less to international trade and more to the emergence of new technologies, the two phenomena are inter-