Labor Standards, Labor Endowments, and the Evolution of Inequality


Proponents often recommend high labor standards as a means of reducing inequality between and within countries. Opponents suggest that labor standards exacerbate international and domestic inequalities. In this paper, we forward a simple argument whereby the impact of higher labor standards on domestic inequality depends on a country’s labor endowment. We hypothesize that where labor is abundant, higher standards will exacerbate inequality. Where labor is scarce, higher labor standards might lower inequality. In both cases, the impact of labor standards on inequality work through an employment and wage effect. Using newly available data on labor standards around the world from 1981 to 2000, we provide evidence largely consistent with our hypotheses. Higher labor standards do, indeed, exacerbate inequality in labor-abundant economies. On the other hand, higher labor standards lower inequality in labor-scarce economies. We discuss the implications of these findings for work on labor market insiders and outsiders as well as the political economy of development.

International Studies Quarterly, 57(3) (2013): 362–379.