I am coming to believe that we need a new round of tariffs to protect American workers. The article on Apple’s manufacturing practices in Sunday’s New York Times makes it sound like American workers don’t have a chance to compete with Chinese workers. Meanwhile an article in Technology Review points out how damaging to workers are the labor practices used by Apple’s Chinese suppliers. The only way American workers could compete is probably to subject themselves to the same miserable conditions that the Chinese workers endure. In essence Apple is using slave labor. It’s arguable that US workers could compete in some highly mechanized robotic factory, but there is no sign that such a factory is under consideration by anybody, because it is easier and cheaper just to do it with people in China.
The Technology Review article calls for some kind of Fair Trade standard, like that used for coffee. I think it is unlikely that such a standard would be tough enough to make any meaningful change in the electronics industry. A tariff would have to be carefully constructed to avoid another Harley-Smoot disaster, but it could be based on protecting the health and welfare of the workers in exporting countries. The worse the working conditions, the higher the tariff. There could be verifiable standards, death rates of workers, hours worked per day, etc.
Instead of creating pressure to lower US working conditions to Chinese standards, such tariffs would pressure developing countries to provide better working conditions. It would help level the playing field for developing and developed countries. The current system unfairly benefits developing countries such as China.