Abiding By US Labor Laws When Operating Outside the US
An overwhelming majority believes US companies should be expected to abide by US health and safety rules when operating abroad. Moral arguments on this issue - both pro and con -- held more sway than economic arguments.
As an indication of how Americans' values are becoming globalized, a strong majority feels US companies should be expected to abide by US laws on working conditions when operating outside the US. Americans have similar views on US companies abiding by domestic environmental rules when operating overseas (see "Abiding by US Environmental Laws When Operating Outside the US"). It appears that Americans think in terms of a kind of 'golden rule' for globalization-do unto others as you do to yourself.
In January 2004, a PIPA poll asked, “overall, would you say that American companies that operate in other countries should be expected to abide by US health and safety standards for workers?” An overwhelming 89% said they should, with 61% feeling that way strongly. Just 6% said US companies should not be expected to adhere to domestic standards when operating overseas.
In an October 1999 PIPA poll, a similar percentage -- 86% -- also felt this way, including 69% strongly. This was true even after respondents were read arguments presenting the potential costs.
PIPA's October 1999 poll ran a series of questions on this issue. Respondents were first told:
As you may know, some countries have lower health and safety standards for workers than the US. Currently there is some discussion about whether American corporations that operate in other countries should be expected to abide by US health and safety standards for workers.
Two arguments in favor and two against this idea were posed. Notably, the purely moral argument received more support than the argument based on the potential negative impact on US jobs. Seventy-nine percent found convincing the argument that "If Americans decide that to do something to put workers in unsafe conditions is wrong inside the US, then it would also be wrong for American companies to do it in other countries." The argument based on concern for jobs - "If US companies can lower their costs by moving to other countries with lower health and safety standards, then they will take American jobs with them" -- was convincing to 62%. On the con side, only 29% found convincing the argument that, "If other countries choose to have lower health and safety standards, it is not the responsibility of American companies to meet the higher US standard." Sixty-one percent recognized that "If US companies have to abide by higher environmental standards than other companies, this will make it harder for US companies to compete."
After hearing the pros and cons, respondents were asked, "So now, overall, would you say that American companies that operate in other countries should be expected to abide by US health and safety standards for workers?" An overwhelming 86% (69% strongly) thought US companies should be expected to abide by US health and safety standards when operating outside the US. 
Even though there is a strong desire to hold US companies to the same standards overseas, some data suggest the public may not believe this viewpoint is realistic. A June 2005 Public Agenda asked “Do you think it's realistic or unrealistic to expect American companies to have the same standards abroad as they have at home?” A slim majority of 52% said it is unrealistic, while 44% said it was realistic. Unfortunately, this question only mentions the vague concept of standards which could mean wages or other business standards and never specifically mentions working conditions or the environment. Moreover, the idea that holding companies to US standards abroad may be seen as unrealistic because although the public supports it, they recognize that political leaders do not.