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In March, The Post asked a poor Brazilian peasant whether he felt exploited by the farm owner who employs his school-age children. "Just the opposite," he replied. "If my children didn't work with me, we would have to go hungry." In Honduras, labor unions oppose bans on child labor. "This country is not the United States," one labor organizer told The New York Times. "Very few Honduran mothers can afford the luxury of feeding children until they are 18 years old without putting them to work." In response to U.S complaints, noted The Times, members of the Honduran Maquiladora Association stopped hiring workers under 16. "But that does not mean the dismissed youngsters are returning to school," reported The Times. "On the contrary, management and labor agree that most of the children have instead sought new jobs outside the assembly sector that are lower paying and more physically demanding."
This is not to say that countries shouldn't have labor standards (or environmental standards). It is to say that for rich countries to decide what those standards should be, and then use access to their markets as a bludgeon, is to present poor countries with a choice: Raise your unemployment or we will do it for you.
Confronted with this sort of compassion, Third World leaders have reacted with a kind of raw anti-American anger not seen in the developing world since the 1970s. In January, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo announced icily that "forces from the extreme Left, the extreme Right, environmentalist groups, trade unions of developed countries, and some self-appointed representatives of civil society are gathering around a common endeavor: to save the people of developing countries from development." He added: "We should be very suspect of their motives."
A momentous change lurks in those words. For decades, Third Worlders have regarded progressives in the developed world as their natural allies. Not any more. Youssef Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian trade minister, demanded in Seattle to know "why, all of a sudden, when Third World labor has proved to be competitive, why do industrial countries start feeling concerned about our workers?" Nondiplomats were not as diplomatic. In the South China Morning Post, one writer called the Seattle activists "rich bullies ... determined to maintain their lifestyle fetishes." In Salon, an Indian likened the protesters to Marie Antoinette, "saying let them have cake."
It is perfectly understandable for American unions to crusade against Third World "sweatshops"; that is where their members' interests lie. But the Left's credibility depends on its claim to speak for the poor, not necessarily for unionized American workers (who are privileged by global standards). Albeit with the best of intentions, progressives have made a choice. They have chosen a grand new crusade that pits them against the poor of the world.
For the Left, the short-term benefits of joining with trial lawyers and unions are spectacular. The long-term costs will be equally spectacular. When the Left puts itself on the wrong side of democracy vs. oligarchy, or rich vs. poor, it cuts off its moral oxygen. In a few years, discerning progressives will slap their foreheads and say, "What, exactly, were we thinking when we empowered a class of billionaire lawyers who took governing into their own hands and split the take with politicians? How did we manage to make sworn enemies of our natural constituency, the world's poor?" But by then it will be too late. The Right will be ascendant again.