Sunday, March 04, 2007

Support "Sweatshops"


For my column in the Diamondback this Wednesday, I was going to tackle the issue of the third-world factory labor, something I touched on last year on the blog. Unfortunately for me though, another staff columnist drew the assignment and his column will run in tomorrow's newspaper, so I'm out of luck. I've reproduced my version below.

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Last week the Diamondback reported a campus group’s effort to ban sweatshop labor used for school apparel and other gear. Never mind that no Terp merchandise has specifically been traced to factories with abusive labor conditions. It’s time to set the record straight. If you really care about helping third-world workers, you should be pro-sweatshops.

That’s not just me being irreverent. Jeffrey Sachs, the influential economist, says “My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few.” He means that international trade makes everyone better off over the long-run. Developing countries get to use their comparative advantage of cheaper labor to gain access to factories, jobs, and skills they could not otherwise get. Meanwhile developed countries get to specialize in other areas and receive lower prices at home.

You might expect liberals to have bleeding hearts over the plight of third-world workers, and conservatives to coldly favor Big Business. But this is not your typical liberal-conservative issue. Sachs is a liberal anti-poverty crusader who works with the U.N. and teams up with rock star Bono on Africa aid.

In fact, my first introduction to this subject came from reading a 2001 column by Paul Krugman, the well-known economist and dependable lefty. He wrote: “Third-world countries aren't poor because their export workers earn low wages; it's the other way around. Because the countries are poor, even what look to us like bad jobs at bad wages are almost always much better than the alternatives.”

Those alternatives that he speaks of are lower-wage jobs such as subsistence farming, menial labor, and prostitution. In 1997, UNICEF discovered that 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the U.S. banned carpet exports from that country in the name of labor standards. Worse yet was the infamous Child Labor Deterrence Act of 1995, which UNICEF, Oxfam, and others have said led to tens of thousands homeless and forced into jobs like “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution.” Yes, that’s a worse outcome.

Keep in mind next time you hear someone lay into Wal-Mart or Nike for paying $1.50 an hour, in most cases, that worker is glad for it. Not to mention it's probably a buck more than they'd be getting working a local job. NY Times columnist John Tierney wrote last year that third world factory jobs “may sound like hell to American college students” but that they “provide enough to lift a worker above the poverty level, and often far above it.”

Tierney cited a recent study of 10 Asian and Latin American countries, which had many insightful revelations. In Honduras, for example, the average apparel worker makes $13 a day, while nearly half the country’s population makes less than $2 a day.

Obviously I am not in favor of labor conditions that are actually abusive. There are several all-too-true examples of factories where workers are subjected to threats and beatings, prevented from going to the bathroom, required to be on birth control, etc. Those are abhorrent practices and we should wholeheartedly oppose them. However, those instances are in the minority.

Third world workers take factory jobs because it is their first step toward integrating into the modern industrialized world. They get away from their rural villages and into the cities. They support their families and provided a better upbringing and education for their children. Later on their children can take advantage of the more advanced jobs that have come to the country after the success of the initial low-level factory work.

If you really are serious about wanting to help third-world countries, think twice before you protest third-world factory labor. You could be doing more harm than good.


Anonymous said...

Well I never thought about this issue with that persepective. I suppose its the lesser of two evils, and all industrialized countries went through periods of sweatshops (Britain's factories during the Industrial Revolution are notorious).Thanks for the insightful view.

Anonymous said...

While your argument at first glance may seem correct, I would like to take some of your figures to task as I think more context is necessary. First off the wages for factory workers in Indonesia are higher than what others make in that country but my hunch is that less than $2 a day is aligned with peasant farming. Factory workers are living in cities that often have much higher prices and even in some cases are paying the same amount as we do in the US for things like clothing. Therefore its appropriate that factory workers are making more money but the real question to ask is what does it cost to live near a factory? Is $13 enough in Indonesia?

Also just because people are lining up for factory jobs doesn't mean that people are completely in favor of the way the factories treat them. Just like a line outside of a soup kitchen probably doesn't speak to the quality of the soup but rather that people need food even if its not mom's homemade chicken noodle.

Also in my experience of talking with factory workers for over 5 years now is that abuse is rampant and considered the norm in factories around the world. I just spent 2 weeks with an Indian garment worker and when asked to describe a specific instance of sexual violence against women producing at Texport Syndicate which produces for Wal-Mart, Nautica and Hollister among others, he responded this happens every day. One woman even committed suicide just 3 weeks ago at another factory because she was sexually violated in a factory and was so ashamed.

I would encourage American consumers to take a long hard look at how our consumerism impacts people around the world. Furthermore, workers aren't calling for a boycott but insist that if American consumers were more educated about the undeniable realities of factory workers, they would demand that companies like Wal-Mart be held accountable for the sweatshops they source from around the world.

In full disclosure, I(Trina Tocco) work for an organization International Labor Rights Fund and more info about our work can be found at

Anonymous said...

who is the author of this article

Anonymous said...; You saved my day again.