An August 8, 2008 search of 73 economics journals collected electronically in the JSTOR database revealed how marginal work, workers, and working conditions has become in economic literature. Of the articles published since January 2004, the term “working conditions” appeared in only 12, not counting four more substantial articles in the Review of African Political Economy, a journal rarely cited by mainstream economists. Of the remaining articles, three concerned the problem of retention of teachers. Another had a footnote that observed that people can learn about working conditions from websites. One article noted that faculty members in colleges and universities join unions to improve working conditions. A book review considered whether globalization could improve working conditions. Two articles mentioned legislation that took working conditions into account. One article disputed that child labor abroad experienced hideous working conditions. Another cited a mid-nineteenth century British economist who said that factory working conditions were good.
At the same time as questions of labor were disappearing, economics began to elevate the status of investors’ financial claims, insisting that owners of this form of property had rights equal to those of owners of real goods, such as land or factories. Even something as ephemeral as “good will” became recognized as property.
Peter Dorman at Econospeak added his thoughts on child labor, and has published Markets and Mortality.
It is inherent in our trade agreements (WTO, bi-lateral and regional, and internal) so much so that few people in general think it is missing. The best retort in comments at Econospeak had to invoke contract law as the contradiction to the thesis.