Saturday, January 17, 2009

In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely. The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there.

~Nicholas Kristof in Wednesday's NY Times

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.
American students should stop trying to ban sweatshops, and instead campaign to bring them to the most desperately poor countries.

~Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times (6/6/2006)

Closing sweatshops and forcing Western labor and environmental standards down poor people's throats in the third world does nothing to elevate them out of poverty. Instead, it forces poor people to buy a lot of rich man's toys, like clean air, clean water, and leisure time. If clean air and leisure time don't strike you as extravagant luxuries, that's because Americans - even the poorest of us - are so rich these days that we've forgotten what true poverty is like. But chances are your great-great-grandparents could have told you what it's like: when you're truly poor, you can't afford things like clean air. Nobody in 1870 America worried about the environment.

~Steven Landsburg in "More Sex Is Safer Sex"

7 Comments:

At 1/17/2009 9:24 AM, Blogger John B. Chilton said...

Don't forget Paul Krugman,

http://www.pkarchive.org/column/42201.html

Even when political action doesn't backfire, when the movement gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets — and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

 
At 1/17/2009 2:12 PM, Blogger @sethstorm said...


I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories

Then by all means push for your country to have higher standards.

Promoting the manufacture of junk only makes more junk.

 
At 1/17/2009 4:06 PM, Blogger Bloggin' Brewskie said...

An abundance of trade produces great benefit for everyone: an opportunity for citizens in developing countries to gain employment - and in hope, escape poverty - plus an opportunity for those in wealthy nations to buy high-quality consumer goods at low prices. In some cases, it’s the working conditions and sub-par wages many in the developed world find abhorrent.

Placing too high of a premium on both wage and work settings will make consumer goods produced prohibitively more expensive. Such action will hurt everyone: “first-worlders” will pay more for goods, and Asia’s “emerging tigers” will be sacked with huge job losses. But there is little doubt that wiggle room does exist for improving deplorable working conditions found in places - such as China, where brutal fourteen- and sixteen-hour workdays persist, six or seven days a week, in hazardous factory settings for pittance money.

China is a bright example of the benefit that comes from trade, and in light of its increased prosperity, the government has begun to implement improved labor laws. China remains a developing country, and as such, nobody should expect the same “clean and safe” factories found in Germany or Japan, nor the same Cadillac wage and benefit packages to be doled out. At least for now; nowhere close, not even a fraction. This gold-plated standard is for “first-rate” nations.

Still, it’s conscionable to expect some form of dignity to be returned, both in wage and employment settings, for the hard work many in the developing world conduct manufacturing our computers, shoes, iPods, furniture and clothes - all at low costs and enticingly affordable. They benefit us immensely, and the least we can do is give a little back.

It’s simply human and American to respect human rights and dignity.

 
At 1/17/2009 9:27 PM, Anonymous Shannan said...

I mostly agree with Nick Kristoff. Too bad he does not think the road out of Povertyville here in the U.S. is through jobs and self sufficiency versus through government aid.

 
At 1/18/2009 1:24 AM, Anonymous poor boomer said...

I do piecework for $2 per hour. How is that going to get me out of poverty?

 
At 1/18/2009 5:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wth_p4p0rfY

 
At 1/22/2009 7:53 PM, Blogger @sethstorm said...


plus an opportunity for those in wealthy nations to buy high-quality consumer goods at low prices.

That doesn't even pass the laugh test. What might pass for quality there is junk over here.


China is a bright example of the benefit that comes from trade

It is an example where "thugs with junk" end up strongarming the US. With the recent events of melamine and lead, it would suggest that lack of quality is routine.



China remains a third-world country, and as such, nobody should expect the same “clean and safe” factories found in Germany or Japan, nor the same Cadillac wage and benefit packages to be doled out

Well, then we should not trade with them. They have plenty of their own to deal with and improve before we should listen.


It’s simply human and American to respect human rights and dignity.

They won't, and if they say "You don't understand", say "We don't care to, as you do not of your own".

 

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