Who can be in favor of “sweatshops”? The word brings to mind images of hundreds of workers from a poor country hunched over sewing machines for fourteen hours a day in stifling heat and with no bathroom breaks. Any person who cares about human dignity must be opposed to sweatshops, right? Well, not so fast.
New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, well known for his dogged reporting on the genocide in Darfur, wrote a column on January 14 in which he defends sweatshops, saying that while the working conditions in many third-world factories are deplorable, the alternative is much worse.
What’s the alternative? For many Cambodians living in Phnom Penh, it’s rummaging through a garbage dump in what Kristof calls a “Dante-like version of hell.” Some Cambodian families even live in shacks scattered among the garbage.
Writes Kristof: “[W]hile it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough. Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.” Moreover, Kristof writes, sweatshops are “only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.“
It’s important to remember that large corporations bring manufacturing jobs to, say, Southeast Asia, not because they have any desire to lift the region out of poverty, but precisely because the labor standards in that part of the world are lax. Because the employees will work long hours for little pay, they get the jobs. If it were suddenly mandated that all workers should receive a “living wage” or get weekends and holidays off, the manufacturing jobs would disappear to other parts of the globe. Or they’d simply come back to the US.
Everyone believes people shouldn’t have to make the decision to work in a sweatshop. They should have better alternatives. But right now they don’t, and insisting that Cambodian factory workers are paid more will actually make their lives worse, because their jobs will disappear. As Will Wilkinson writes: “I am constantly dumbstruck that so many who profess to care about ‘social justice’ do little more than complain that desperate people have really terrible options and then work to take away the best options.”
Over ten years ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman made a similar defense of sweatshops in Slate, writing: “The only reason developing countries have been able to compete with those industries is their ability to offer employers cheap labor. Deny them that ability, and you might well deny them the prospect of continuing industrial growth, even reverse the growth that has been achieved.”
The living conditions for the average Indonesian or Bangladeshi or Vietnamese person, over the last 30 years, have improved, and as Krugman points out, this hasn’t been because of foreign aid from benevolent governments, but rather because of “soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labor.” But whatever the motives that brought jobs to impoverished parts of the world, the result has been “to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.”
But over at
her his Where am I Wearing blog, Kelsey Timmerman is not as sanguine as Kristof about sweatshops. Kelsey writes that his quest to see how and where his clothing was made– which resulted in his visiting factories in places like Cambodia, China, and Honduras– has led him to believe that the argument “sweatshops are good” over-simplifies just as much as the opposite argument. Though he agrees with Kristof’s central premise, Kelsey sees the op-ed as “encouraging apathy” and writes, “As consumers, we should care who makes our clothes and what their lives are like.” [Edit: Sorry, Kelsey!]