COMPETITIVENESS is the new watchword in Washington, and the Reagan administration and Democrats on Capitol Hill are already falling all over each other attempting to show who has the best plan for improving US competitiveness. In the rush to provide a quick remedy for the massive trade deficit, the White House and the Congress stand to lose sight of the equally important need to develop some moral basis for US trade policy so that the United States is not only the technological pacesetter in the international economy, but also the moral leader.
The trade bill passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year, while rightfully maligned for its overall protectionist approach, took a first step at creating some moral underpinnings for trade policy by making abuse of worker rights by a foreign trading partner an unfair trade practice subject to US retaliation. The proposal died when the Senate failed to pass trade legislation.
But foreign abuses of worker rights - exploitation of child labor, unsafe working conditions, use of slave labor, excessive hours of work, and the inability of workers to organize and bargain collectively - continues.
For example, the inexpensive Thai-made skirts and blouses one can buy in discount department stores have often been sown by 13- and 14-year-old girls who got their jobs because they were willing to work long hours and sleep in cubicles crammed together inside factories. And much of the Korean steel flooding the American market comes from factories run by the military where workers protest their pay and working conditions at their own peril.
The Reagan administration and much of the US business community have opposed protection of foreign worker rights in trade legislation, charging that such proposals are merely thinly veiled protectionism and a naive attempt to impose high US working standards on the poor, struggling economies of the third world.
But California companies are not allowed to gain a competitive advantage over New York companies by forcing their employees to work seven days a week. Why should Korean companies have that advantage? Similarly, is it really protectionist to say American workers should not have to compete againt 11-year-olds assembling computer chips?
Admittedly it will be difficult to define precisely minimal standards for worker rights. For this reason, the standards should be internationally vague, to allow US trade officials the leeway to take into account cultural differences, disparities in the level of development, and special needs when administering the law.
Nevertheless, general standards should include:
A minimum age for the employment of children in producing internationally traded goods and services.
Working conditions that don't harm worker health.
At least one day off a week and a maximum number of hours a person is asked to work in a single day.
A prohibition against the use of forced labor.
There are other standards that are more controversial and may have to await greater consensus on them:
A minimum wage - any minimum to start - and a mechanism to improve it over time as conditions permit.
The right to organize and bargain collectively.
Most of these standards already exist in the statutes of major US trading partners. It is not unrealistic for the US to ask other countries to enforce their own laws.
The Reagan administration will soon be able to demonstrate its willingness to say no to the mistreatment of workers. US law prohibits the granting of trade preferences to developing countries that abuse labor rights. The US Trade Representative's office has prepared a report on allegations of such abuses, and President Reagan must act on their recommendations by January. Action against the most egregious offender would send a warning to all that exploitation must stop.
Similarly, in the trade legislation that it is likely to pass next year Congress will be able to define for the first time the moral principles upon which the US bases its participation in the international economy.
With the largest and most open market in the world, the US has the leverage to see to it that future competition is not based on exploitation.
Bruce Stokes is the international economics correspondent for the National Journal, a Washington-based weekly policy magazine.