May Day means many things is many people. For pagans, it's a day to dress a maypole. For unions, it's a day to reminisce. For Russians, it's complicated. For us, it's an excuse to answer an impossible and important question on International Worker's Day: What policy would do the most to help international workers?
Reasonable people can disagree on an answer to this big question, but I don't think it's even close. The most important pro-worker policy in the world is clearly giving women access to better education.
Women drive economic growth -- more than China, more than the Internet, and more than banks. In the U.S., the growth of female employment added 2 percentage points per year to GDP growth. In Europe, working women accounted for 25% of the continent's new wealth in the last 20 years, as I've reported.
But internationally, there are still 1.5 billion women of prime-age who are not in the "formal global economy," according to the Women's Economic Opportunity Index. In the poorest African countries, women's participation rate is high, but many work in the informal economy (selling cheap wares to tourists on the street, for example) with scarce pay. In lower-middle income countries -- those undergoing the early stages of industrialization -- women are half as likely to be working as men, and in many Middle Eastern countries fewer than one in five women are working at all. If there is an opportunity to intervene on the part of international worker, it is hard to find more opportunity than in improving the lot of women in these developing countries.
Even before you get to education, there are legal barriers, there are structural economic barriers, and there are temporal barriers. In countries like Yemen and Sudan where women are treated as second-class citizens or banned from controlling their own finances, labor participation rates are miserable. In industrializing countries, manufacturing and mechanized agriculture take over the economy, and create jobs that are unfortunately biased toward brawn. In many poor countries where women are expected to (or coerced into) having many children, it's impractical for them to leave their kids alone at home while they work for hours every week day somewhere else.
Although there is no silver bullet policy that can fix all these problems at once, education remains "the basic stepping stone to access to the labor market," according to the Bank of America report Global Girl Power. In the United States and Europe, women make up the majority of new bachelor's earners. In Asia, however, women's education attainment still lags men by between 20 and 40 percent.
In troubled economies, educated women are still vulnerable (in most Middle Eastern countries, even educated women are more likely to be unemployed than men). In advanced economies, they still struggle for life-balance (a 2007 Korea study found that, for 60 percent of the women surveyed, "child rearing was the biggest obstacle to participating in the labor force").
But as the developed world moves through the industrial revolution into consumer/service economies, access to education will be the indispensable ticket to the labor force. The OECD provides a glimpse of the future: In every developed country, men and women "who have completed upper-secondary education are more likely to be in work than people [who have not]."
Unions matter, health care access matters, work-life-balance policies matter, and minimum wage laws matter, too. But on International Worker's Day, it's useful to keep your eye on the biggest picture. There are more prime-age women not working in the world than there are humans in China. If they want to work, they ought to be able to. And the long road there begins with access to education.