It seems obvious as to why sweatshops would be frowned upon. However, is this revulsion of sweatshops justified? "My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops,” said Economist Jeffrey Sachs, “but that there are too few." Sachs and other advocates of free trade and the global movement of capital cite the economic theory of comparative advantage, which states that international trade will, in the long run, make all parties better off.
Justifying sweatshops may seem horrible, but it is a horrible reality; people live in extreme poverty, and to be able to work in a sweatshop is a bliss to some. Mongkol Latlakorn, a Thai man in his late 40’s, told Nicholas Kristof when interviewed that, "I hope she can keep that job. There's all this talk about factories closing now, and she said there are rumors that her factory might close. I hope that doesn't happen. I don't know what she would do then." The statement was in response to the aghast expression on Kristof’s face when Mongkol told him that his fifteen year old daughter was working in a sweatshop for $2 per day - six days per week. Though it may seem hard to imagine for us Westerners, Mongkol’s beliefs about sweatshops is widely held in the Eastern world. In 1992, it’s estimated that between 50,000 and 75,000 children under fourteen worked in sweatshops - mainly girls. That same year, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin introduced a bill which made it so that the U.S. would not trade with factories that employed child labor. Consequently, the children who were previously working in the sweatshops had to find jobs elsewhere; the children now turned to stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution - all of which are exceedingly more dangerous than garment production.
It is clear that working in a sweatshop is preferable to the next best thing - which is ultimately horrible. However, is it possible that sweatshops may infact be the driving force in achieving economic growth in nations plagued by poverty? Yes, it is. In the late 70s, the Four Tigers (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong) began to roar. The Tigers were all prominent producers of toys, apparel, and shoes, things being produced by labor intensive factories. In merely one generation, these countries went from having an average income equivalent to a tenth of the United State’s average income, to having an average income which was 40% compared to that of the U.S’s average income. Furthermore, while Singapore encouraged foreign plant-owners to set up within their borders, South Korea shunned the foreign plant-owners; both, however, achieved the same economic growth - the only constant being sweatshops. The nations have now grown more sophisticated as they export cars and computers, while moving away from labor intensive production; ultimately, this is the state which nations plagued by poverty wish to reach - if the means is sweatshops, I’d like to think the end justifies the means.
The late 1990’s anti-sweatshop protesters had a clear and sound idea about why sweatshops are bad however: If a worker is getting paid pennies every hour and is being overseered by domineering curators - then things have to change.
Anti-sweatshop fighters also argue that the wealth is getting distributed unevenly, resulting in ever-widening inequality. The reasoning behind this claim is rather straight-forward; since the labor is so cheap, and the products are exported back to the U.S., the money does not stay in the countries where the things are produced. A pair of Air Jordans costs anything from fifty dollars, to two-hundred fifty dollars. As such, the net gain for Nike is enormous, because the workers earn merely a fraction of what the sole inside the shoe sells for.
The core issue, however, is not the inequality; as long as the pie is getting larger, third world countries do not necessarily care about how large their slice is. The core issue is that sweatshops are bad from a humanitarian perspective. There has been several incidents where factories have collapsed or burned - with the workers still inside. Even without such an extreme event taking place, the workers are being subjected to horrendous conditions, resulting in workers leaping to their death from factory windows; most factories now have nets to “save” the workers in their suicide attempt, which goes to show that the plant-owners are, indeed, very aware of the duress the workers are placed under.
While the anti-sweatshop arguments are partially true, the solutions proposed by the anti-sweatshop movement would do nothing but hurt the very people they intend to help. Their response to the issue is to close the sweatshops is not rational, nor is it practical. Bangladesh, one of nations that are most famous for their sweatshops, has twelve percent of their total GDP in their garment industry. Closing all sweatshops would, without a doubt, create chaos in the region and leave Bangladesh in an economic downturn.
If the anti-sweatshop argument is correct, but their solution is flawed, a superior solution must then exist. Indeed, a superior solution do exist: safer sweatshops. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire which left one-hundred forty-six charred - lifeless - bodies could have been almost entirely avoided; the main reason (other than the fire) so many lost their lives that day was because most of the doors were locked, and the ones which were not locked opened the wrong way. The cost to implement the right security measures (unlocking the doors) to prevent those deaths would have cost close to nothing, and would certainly not made the profits from that factory wane. Paul Krugman, one of the leading figures in the sweatshop debate, even said in his article, Safer Sweatshops, “can we act to improve the lot of workers in low-age, labor-intensive manufacturing? Yes, we can, as long as the goals are realistic and the measures appropriate in scale.” It is not time to close sweatshops, it is time to make them safer.
It is baffling that the idea of a Bangladeshi woman sewing a pair of Air Jordans for 70 cents per hour evoke stronger feelings than a girl under the age of fifteen selling herself to prostitution. Krugman, in his emblematic article In Praise of Cheap Labor, stated the ideology behind this thought, “The main answer, I think, is a sort of fastidiousness. Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit--and this makes us feel unclean. And so there are self-righteous demands for international labor standards: We should not, the opponents of globalization insist, be willing to buy those sneakers and shirts unless the people who make them receive decent wages and work under decent conditions.”
Basing others well-being of one’s level of cleanliness is irrational and destructive to the people who it actually affects. Had the jobs, in fact, been as deplorable as anti-sweatshop fighters make them out to be, the workers would not have taken the jobs when they first emerged. It’s imperative to remember that sweatshop workers are not slaves, they can leave whenever they want - given the right economic circumstances. That is an important addition however; in nations plagued by poverty, workers does not always have the right economic circumstances to leave their sweatshop job. This, of course, has been pointed out numerous times by anti-sweatshop fighters; that comment, however, contradicts everything the anti-sweatshop fighters stand for. While yes, it is perhaps deplorable to take advantage of people in that situation; is it not preferable to the alternative?
It is safe to say that the sweatshop debate is one we will not see resolved in the near future. Sweatshops may not be desired, but they are an economic necessity for countries stricken by poverty. The anti-sweatshop crusade is still in the process of closing sweatshops, and the nation is following blindly as sweatshops are getting closed and workers in bad situations, are getting put in worse situations.
The question posed by anti-sweatshop activists and economists alike is the wrong question; the question should not be whether or not sweatshops should exist, but how nations can escape the need to have them. Let us not forget that all the economic power-houses like the United States, Great Britain, and China, all have preoccupied sweatshops at some point in the past. However, as the nation’s economy started growing, using sweatshops became increasingly less relevant - and eventually eliminated. Labor intensive factories do, indeed, better the standards of living for a tremendous amount of people; as such, it’s vital to, not only accept sweatshops, but in fact encourage them. Until greater economic stability can be reached in a nation, sweatshops do work as a tool; not only are sweatshops good for the nation, but they are good for the workers.
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