Op-Eds

Faces 6

See also:

Our? Jobs

Pennsylvania, and especially central Pennsylvania, has lost many relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs in recent years. Whenever a tool-and-die or chemical plant closes its doors and moves to another state, or worse yet, another country, letters inevitably pour in to the editor of the local newspaper wondering where "their" or "our American" jobs are going. But on what basis can any of us claim that certain jobs are "our" jobs? Is it because we have worked those jobs for five, ten, or twenty years, or because we are buddies with the boss? If a new guy with comparative skills moves in and offers to work for a lower wage should we prevent him from doing so because the job is "ours?" Historically speaking the answer was usually, yes. In the U.S., the "new guy" was the recently freed African-American, the Irish immigrant, or the Asian immigrant. At one point in time Americans in general were the "new guys" who "stole" jobs from Great Britain.

Today, the story has a new twist. The "new guy" is not coming to the job; the job is going to him (or her). Furthermore, free or freer trade facilitates this entire process. While there are compelling arguments for and against free trade, it is very important to give the "new guy" a real face, and challenge the notion of "our" jobs. My last semester in Quito, Ecuador gave me an opportunity to meet the "new guy."

From July to December of last year I traveled and studied in Ecuador, a small country on the western coast of South America. While waiting to meet a friend outside of McDonalds one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the McDonalds security guard. His name was Juan. He sported a Kevlar vest and a sawed off shotgun, and looked to be around 18 or 20 years old. He asked me what I was doing in Ecuador, and I told him that I was studying in a nearby university. Then Juan told me that he wanted to attend college some day but that he simply cannot set aside any money on his $200 a month salary. His parents can't help him as they barely get by on their equally meager incomes.

While waiting to meet a friend outside of McDonalds one afternoon, I struck up a conversation with the McDonalds security guard. His name was Juan. He sported a Kevlar vest and a sawed off shotgun, and looked to be around 18 or 20 years old.

Why such a low wage? (And to be honest, Juan is lucky to have the job he has given the Ecuadorian job market). In short, low demand for labor and low worker productivity keeps wages low and competition for jobs high. The success of the Ecuadorian economy is affected by both internal and external variables. One major external variable is the willingness of other countries to allow the entry of Ecuadorian goods into their markets.

The current "Andean Trade Preference Act" allows most Ecuadorian goods to enter the U.S. market duty-free, and U.S policy should remain as such. Many factors may limit Juan's opportunities but one of them should not be a decision by the U.S. government to restrict Ecuadorian products through the use of trade barriers from entering the U.S. market. If a manufacturing job arrives in Ecuador and pays Juan 50 percent more than what he is making now he may be able to enter the Ecuadorian university system. Therefore, is it a crime for him to take "our" jobs? If a company outsources a job to Juan because he is willing to do my job for half the wage, who I am I to say, "No, this is MY job."

The current outsourcing debate must consider that trade is a two-way street. By reducing barriers to trade we obtain certain products cheaper and have a larger market in which to sell our goods. But, even more importantly, the outsourcing debate must recognize that those who work jobs outsourced from the U.S. may in fact deserve those jobs.

Jeremy Weber, from Mohnton, Pa., is a senior at Juniata College studying International Political Economy.