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In the 1914 Clayton Act, Congress declared: "The labor of a human being is not a commodity or an article of commerce." The practical reason for this section of the Clayton Act was to exempt collusion in labor negotiations from antitrust liability. The law also gave effect to the rejection of the commodification of human labor. Since the passage of the Clayton Act, developments in law and society have chipped away at the law's symbolic anti-commodification message. This paper examines the commodification of labor in the international trade and guestworker debates. Historically, the concept of "comparative advantage" in international trade referred to commodities such as natural resources that countries could trade with each other on the global market. The new source of comparative advantage is cheap labor. Trade agreements such as NAFTA formalize this arrangement. The effect of the commodification of labor is to make invisible the workers who will be most affected by these trade negotiations. Workers are treated as commodities without agency or an interest in the outcome of agreements between countries. This lack of worker input has continued to the recent negotiations for a guestworker program between the United States and Mexico.

This paper finds lacking the theories of virtual representation that may close the "democracy deficit" between the workers' interests and the imperatives of international trade. The solution, the author argues, is that workers must be given a voice in the negotiations over trade agreements through representatives of their own choosing.

Publication Citation

10 J. Gender Race & Just. 27 (2006)