More Sweatshops, Please!

History is full of well-intentioned actions with unfortunate, unintended consequences. The attempt by Western activists to stop multinational companies from buying goods made by sweatshop labour might be a good case in point.

That’s the argument put forward in the short video, A Dirty Job: Making the Case for Sweatshops, by Nicholas D. Kristof for the New York Times. The video is just under 5 minutes long, and well worth watching. The setting is a garbage dump in Cambodia, where many individuals and even entire families eke out a meagre existence there by scavenging for scrap plastic and scrap metal. Needless to say, it’s a brutal life these people live. Is it the best they could hope for? No, many of them do have dreams: they dream of a job in a sweatshop.

Here’s a quotation from the video’s narration:

‘Sweatshop’ is a dirty word for us in the West. And all the criticisms of sweatshops are justified. I sure wouldn’t want to work in one. But in the world’s most impoverished countries, even a sweatshop job beats the alternatives: construction, prostitution, or scavenging. Nearly all of the people with whom I spoke at the dump consider factory work an improvement, maybe even a dream job of sorts.

According to Kristof, sweatshops aren’t just a dream for individuals, but for entire economies:

Manufacturing also offers one of the best hopes for mass employment in a poor country. Sweatshops are how East Asia raised living standards.

The conclusion, Kristof suggests, is pretty clear:

I know it sounds strange to say so, but if we care about the poor shouldn’t we actually be campaigning for sweatshops?

I think Kristof makes a compelling case. But I think two additional points need to be made:
1) There are sweatshops, and there are sweatshops. The kinds of factories that might be crammed into that one awkward category vary enormously. Plenty of factories in developing countries wouldn’t meet Western standards for health & safety, pay, etc., but are basically “good” jobs from the point of view of the people working there. Other factories are even less lovely: some are basically forced labour camps, rife with human rights abuses. It’s worth keeping that distinction in mind when we hear arguments in favour of what we very loosely call “sweatshops.”
2) Accepting Kristof’s argument — basically that sweatshop jobs are, for many people, better than the alternatives — does not automatically mean that neither multinational corporations nor consumers need any longer care about labour standards in third-world factories. We should be careful not to ‘let the best be the enemy of the good,’ but we can also still care, and look for room for improvement where we can.

7 comments so far

  1. G. Jerry van Rossum on

    Well stated argument! Although I can agree with Kristof, I do wonder about the other end of the question. That is about the profits made through sweat shops? Perhaps my naive self wants to be sure that multinationals are actually raising the standards of life without exploitation.

  2. adnan. on

    <>I know it sounds strange to say so, but if we care about the poor shouldn’t we actually be campaigning for sweatshops?<>No, we’re not campaigning for sweatshops because we care for the poor. We’re doing it to decrease production costs. If we cared about the poor, we may have kept the factories here (where ever here is) and paid decent wages.It’s also convenient to say that we’re “fulfilling their dreams”, so if they dreamt to work in poorer conditions, should we go about fulfilling those dreams?Perhaps if we laid out all the reason why we open up sweatshops we’d get a better understanding of the picture. So, why do we open up sweatshops?

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Adnan:Thanks for your comment.But you (we) need to be clear who “we” are in statements like those.Your first claim, for example, is about campaigning (usually done by advocacy groups and NGO’), with a human rights agenda; they’re unlikely campaigning about production costs.The same goes for your final question: I don’t know who the “we” in your question refers to. Mostly “we” don’t open up sweatshops at all.Chris.

  4. Tom on

    Sure sweatshop is a dirty word for us here but here’s my thought on that.Are some of the jobs we have here just as bad? Sure we don’t live in dumps, but how about the conditions are some of our jobs?Maybe the media does a good job of covering up the facts but I still think that our jobs here aren’t all that great compared to theirs

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    Tom:“Just as bad?” I doubt it. There is nothing (well, nothing <>legal<>) in the U.S. or Canada that can compare with true sweatshops in the developing world.And I seriously doubt the media has any interest in “covering up” poor working conditions here in the developed world. But anyway, keep in mind that Kristof’s point is not about whether sweatshops are good or bad, but about how an unpleasant-looking option might not be the <>worst<> option.Chris.

  6. Emilie on

    Having recently spent some time in Nicaragua I can tell you that the sweatshops found there have more issues than the ones described by Kristof.First off, the maquilas or maquiladores are often situated in duty-free or Free Trade Zones. The idea is that a multi-national will be attracted by the promise of tax free production and cheap labour and set up shop in that country. The pay-off will be that the home economy will benefit from the injection of new money from the salaries of the workers. I can understand that argument on a basic and simplistic level. When a person begins to dig a little deeper though, issues begin to emerge. First of all, nobody is being held accountable in these Free Trade Zones, so the company can pay whatever wages they like. In country such as Nicaragua for example, where unemployment is rampant, people will take a job wherever they can get it. Yes, the workers would be making more money than they would if they were unemployed, but my question is; are they making a living wage? the answer is a resounding, NO. If we want to speak ethically, then I believe that it is an ethical responsibility of a business to pay its employees at the very least a living wage.This is not to mention the negative environmental impact that the company may (and probably is) having on the country in which it is situated. In one of the barrios in Nicaragua, all of the drinking water has been contaminated by the garment factory located in the nearby Free Trade Zone. How much are the hidden costs of the environmental clean-up, not to mention the health costs to the people living in the barrio. The company responsible for the negative consequences to their actions are probably not going to be the ones paying for their reparation.Also, obviously, the company isn’t paying any kind of tariff on their products, so they aren’t really contributing anything to the local economy.To the question of do I care for the poor? I answer yes…will I campaign for sweatshops? Most definitely not. I will instead campaign for more support for fair trade and micro-credit for small businesses.Thank you for your time.

  7. Heather on

    Morally speaking, we are all guilty of supporting sweatshops. It doesn’t matter if we are the supervisor running them, the owner of the company using them, or the consumer buying their products. Even though the amount of sweatshops has diminished in America, they are thriving in other countries. Since the 1970’s, the amount of textiles imported to the US has greatly risen. Without the strict regulations that we have, other countries can produce these items for far cheaper, with the help of sweatshops. What would happen if all of these sweatshops closed down? The direct impact to us would be the significant rise in apparel prices. More importantly would be the impact on the displaced workers. They could be forced to live on the streets, taking whatever odd jobs come along. In my eyes, this would be worse than working for low wages in bad conditions. In any case, these workers should have a choice. It would be great if the conditions and pay were improved, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. After all, if there are people willing & wanting to work, why would these factories put additional funds towards them? This will most likely only happen if the owning company is pressured. Like the big deal that was made about the sweatshops used by Nike. They still use these factories, but now pay a living wage & have safer working conditions. I just thank God every day that I was lucky to be born in the place and time that I was. I know that even the most people living in poverty in first-world countries have it better than these workers in third-world countries.


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