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The debates teach us about trade - and a Pennsylvania company teaches us more

October 17, 2012 - Mike Maneval
American voters searching for an explanation for the stagnation and erosion in the earnings of working American families during the past 40 years may have watched the presidential debates Oct. 3 in Denver and Tuesday in Hempstead, N.Y. They may have been better served by reading the news about recent developments by a Pennsylvania company. Not that watching the debates would have been a waste of time, as they were illustrative of why earnings may not be recovering any time soon.

Chocolate manufacturer Hershey, after 20 years or more since the problem began to surface before the public, is taking a few more tepid steps toward treating its foreign workforce as human beings. As reported by the Central Pennsylvania Business Journal, Hershey announced in early October the company would submit to full certification of its products by 2020, nearly a decade away. Certification of cacao crops grown on foreign soil is important, as numerous labor rights groups' websites detailed in acknowledging the development, because today and for the nearly two decades activists have pressured the chocolate industry on the issue, a majority of the crops grown in West Africa were farmed by enterprises that use the slavery of children and POWs taken in civil wars.

While the abuses in Africa especially are horrific, labor conditions in Asia and Latin America are scarcely better, leaving American workers in a global economy competing for jobs against both children and the poor forced by circumstances to work for far less compensation. The impact has been devastating - a gradual sacrifice of the manufacturing sector in the U.S., the subsequent decline in both consumer spending when the newly foreign manufacturing workforce can't afford the same goods and services the American factory worker 25 years ago could, and declining wages for the remaining sectors of the U.S. economy when once factory-employed Americans train and compete for what jobs survive.

The punishments the proponents of "free trade" have inflicted upon America become more evident with each recession and with each smaller and slower rebound. And yet, former Massachusetts gov. Mitt Romney proscribed more trade deals as the solution in Hempstead, touting a five-point plan that includes, in his words, "opening up more trade, particularly in Latin America," where the previous Republican president rewarded Colombia, a nation where at the time when workers tried to unionize they'd likely be killed and their murders unsolved and where today average annual income is about $8,300, with a proposal for a trade deal. In the debates Romney was left offering vague bromides about revitalizing manufacturing and about China's currency manipulation รค amidst all of China's atrocities against working Chinese - because he can't talk about the repercussions of the trade policies he endorses.

And incumbent President Barack Obama hardly could draw much of a distinction, with his vows from 2008 to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement unfulfilled, and the best he could - but didn't - offer being that he slowed and possibly improved the aforementioned trade deal with Colombia and two others. He also was left offering small steps and vague promises to restore the American manufacturing sector.

Which is why the American voter may want to dim any optimism pay for their days' work will improve. The debates demonstrate that our two-party system is captive to an incumbent president whose commitment to solving a decades-old problem is weak and an opposing party that wants to pretend the problem is part of the solution.

 
 

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