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Labor laws vary from country to country, but for the most part, you'll find that regulations

are far stricter overseas. In the United States, employers enjoy considerable flexibility in hiring and firing. But in the European Union and much of South America, organized labor is much stronger and employers are legally obligated to consult with employee representatives, often a union or works council, before relocating an office, conducting layoffs, or even discontinuing a product line, says Aaron Schindel, a lawyer in the New York City office of the firm Proskauer Rose. Worker benefits also are more extensive, with many countries mandating that employers provide a month of paid vacation and mandatory bonuses, such as the Mexican aguinaldo--roughly equal to three weeks' wages paid right before Christmas. Severance for fired workers also tends to be far more generous. To take one extreme example, employers in Sierra Leone are required to pay displaced workers up to six years' annual salary. The lesson here is that the math that seems to make offshoring attractive often is incomplete. Hourly labor costs may be relatively low. "But other costs of exit can bring the overall costs right back to where they would be in the United States," says Lance Compa, who teaches labor law at Cornell University. On the other hand, you'll likely catch a break when it comes to health care. Most countries offer workers universal health insurance funded in part by payroll taxes or employer insurance contributions. The rates can be high, but in many cases foreign payroll taxes cost employers less than rising insurance premiums in the United States. For more information on labor law:

The International Labour Organization outlines employment policies by country at www.ilo.org/public/english/employment/ index.htm.

Business for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit research and consulting firm, offers guidelines for responsible business practices at bsr.org.

The U.S. Department of Labor provides international labor-market reports at dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/usfta/main.htm.

2. How can I protect my intellectual property?

Ultimately, you should have a patent in every country in which you do business. U.S. patents are not enforceable overseas. And in most foreign countries, you forfeit your intellectual property rights if you publicly disclose an invention or technology without a patent. In other words, the instant you begin talking about your widget--even at an informal sales call or trade show--you expose yourself to the threat of knockoffs and will have no ability to seek restitution. "It's an easy one to miss," says Constance Bagley, a professor at the Harvard Business School. "And once you blow it, you can't recover." The problem is that few companies want to go to the expense and hassle of filing for an international patent--which runs about $5,000 per country-- before they're certain they've found a viable market. One option is to file with the Patent Cooperation Treaty under the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization, says John Lanza, an attorney at the Boston office of the firm Choate Hall & Stewart. A PCT filing, which costs between $3,000 and $6,000, can preserve your right to patent your product in most major nations for up to 30 months. That will allow you to explore multiple markets before shelling out for foreign patents and to seek recourse if your product is knocked off in the meantime. The boogeyman of IP theft, of course, is one of the world's most attractive new markets-- China. One way to protect yourself there, according to Ted C. Fishman, the author of China Inc., is via a licensing agreement with a Chinese business partner that requires a healthy upfront payment to you. You can also negotiate for the right to adopt any improvement made in China on your technology or process. These concessions can help make up the revenue you expect to lose to knockoffs. It's not exactly justice, but it's something.