US Senate Bill to Combat Sweatshops

(Sorry for the long break, blog fans. Just been busy…)

So apparently a handful of Senators are sponsoring this new bill to help deter US companies from using foreign sweatshops.

Here’s the story, as reported in the Contra Costa Times: Senate sweatshop bill gains bipartisan support

A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at preventing American companies from profiting from the use of foreign sweatshops and other unfair labor practices abroad.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, joined four Democrats and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in sponsoring a bill that would allow U.S. firms to sue competitors that they believe are selling imported products made in overseas sweatshops.

A couple of points to consider, here (particularly for those of you who haven’t thought/read a lot about sweatshops…):

1) There’s no question the worst sweatshops out there are truly awful. Conditions are often inhuman. Some people figure “sweatshop” just means “less nice than North American Factories.” Not true. Of course, there’s bound to be a whole range of conditions, depending on the brutality of a factory’s owners/operators, degree of effective local regulation, and the level of desperation among the workers. (I sometimes hear people say, “Yeah, they get paid less, but 20 cents an hour is a pretty good wage over there!” True, local cost of living matters. But you can’t just assume…you’ve got to get the facts.)

2) Yes, for many countries, sweatshops to supply North American retailers are an important source of investment and employment. So it’s foolish just to say “shut ’em all down!” In this regard, I’ll be curious to see what test they’ll use to determine if a particular factory is a “Sweatshop.” Most of us have the luxury of judging such things from our armchairs, because we don’t have to justify (and enforce) our views. And reputable retailers can focus on making things better rather than focusing on which factories are “really” sweatshops vs which ones are just a little sub-standard. But if this bill goes through, someone will have to define, clearly, what counts as a sweatshop. Lawyers: on your marks, get set…

3) I read in another version of this story that the proposed fine is $10,000 per offcne. Is that some sort of joke? Unless that’s the fine per day or something, it’s not going to impress any of the big retailers (Wal-Mart, Target, etc.)

4) Sometimes it’s not just about immediate consequences. Sometimes symbolic gestures matter. So it may be that this bill has some moral value — as a public condemnation of certain labour practices — even if the mechanism is complicated and the fine too small.

2 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    Ok, so I’ve been doing a lot of research into sweatshops, and I found myself coming back to the same question you addressed in paragraph 2. What counts as a sweatshop? I am far from a lawyer, but I argue that the first premise for any definition is consistancy. And if the U.S. Government is going to regulate the institution of sweatshop labor as promoted by American manufacturers, than it must regulate them, not based on the individual countries’ laws, but rather based on the same standards those companies would have to comply with here in the states. Would you agree with that premise, and if so, what would you propose as a definiton of “sweatshop”

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Hi:I’m no expert on this, but I think it would be a mistake to insist that foreign factories conform to American standards. Less-developed nations need the foreign investment, and one key way to do that is to keep costs low — including lower wages and likely lower quality working conditions, unfortunately. If you insist on American standards, outsourcing would stop (which might be good for U.S. workers but very bad for workers in less-developed countries.)I frankly have no idea how to define “sweatshop.” But I don’t think we need to. It’s enough to say ‘here are the standards U.S. companies and their subcontractors should conform to, overseas.”Regards,Chris.

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