You’ve got to love an argument in favor of sweatshops set beside a picture of the author in a business suit. It’s almost all the argument against itself that the column needs. “Look at me,” it says, “wearing a suit made by people working in almost slave-like conditions. I’m paying for it by writing that making it was good for them. Symbiosis!”
The article is by Nicholas D. Kristof and it’s worth reading before you plow into my commentary. It’s well written and, despite my tone of derision, not completely insane. It just conveniently ignores one of the main reasons these sweatshops exist.
Here’s the thesis, more or less:
[W]hile it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.
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.
What Kristof is saying is that sweatshops, as bad as they are, are better jobs than the other options available to people subjected to crushing poverty. In this, he’s right. Certainly the factory jobs pay better than much of the employment available to them; it was the same story during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America. Those factories were brutal, injuring and killing the workers it didn’t simply beat down. At the same time, they helped create a middle class that may never have existed without them. With a little help from violent labor strikes and government intervention against greedy corporate robber barons, anyway.
That sweatshop jobs are better than, as Kristof says, pulling a rickshaw, but that doesn’t justify his point that we shouldn’t address the terrible conditions at the factories that make our stuff. Kristof never mentions the elephant in the room, the people who pay the sweatshop bills and demand that their goods come in at the lowest price point possible: American corporations and their consumers.
I think it’s informative to listen to another side of the story, especially since Kristof mentions Cambodia and its attempts to pay better wages to its workers. It’s a topic This American Life addressed in 2005, and unlike Kristof they talk about how important the corporations’ willingness to pay for these higher priced goods is to their success. There are some companies, like The Gap, that have made sourcing only from countries with fair labor standards a priority. They’re in the minority.
We live in the richest country in the world, and yet our consumer binge of the past two decades demanded that we pay as little as possible for every single item. We penny pinch on our clothes and electronics, never connecting the cheaper prices to what those prices require: cheaper production. Given the choice between a $15 pair of jeans and a $20 pair, most Americans would buy the $15 one, choosing a small savings regardless of the human cost of their savings.
But don’t let this all be put at the feet of the consumer. What of the corporations, who look to keep production costs low not just because of consumer thriftiness but because they want to increase their profit margins as high as possible? If Walmart’s customers are willing to pay $15 for a pair of jeans, and they can cut the cost of production 10% simply by moving production from Cambodia to Vietnam, who benefits? The consumers? Unlikely; they’ll still be paying $15 for the jeans. Instead, the savings will appear in Walmart’s increased profit margin, in their share prices and in the bonuses of a few executives. Reign in the insatiable greed of corporate America – not eliminate, just reign it in – and the workers in those sweat shops would see their conditions improve.
As embarrassing as it is to admit, a lot of my generation got our morality tales out of comic books, and there is none better known than the tale of Peter Parker. When bit by a radioactive spider, Peter was given strength and speed beyond that of a normal human. And yet, after being cheated out of his pay by a wrestling promoter, Peter allowed a criminal who had robber the promoter to escape. The criminal fled the scene and came across Peter’s uncle Ben. In the ensuing struggle, Ben Parker died. If Peter had used the strength he had been given, the powers that were now his, he could have stopped it from happening. His uncle’s most important lesson sunk in: With great power comes great responsibility.
With all our wealth and power, to allow ourselves to be convinced that we can just let the indignities of the workers who clothe us slide is to renounce the responsibility our power brings. The other side of the coin, the side Kristof neglected to examine, is that the profits of American corporations are inversely proportional to the standard of living in the countries that make our goods. To compete for work, these factories must lower wages and reduce standards. We are, in no uncertain terms, responsible for the poor conditions in these factories.
Kristof can argue that a sweatshop is better than a rickshaw, and he might be right. We can’t stop there. Not when we’re the richest, most powerful nation in the world. Not with all the responsibility that power brings. If a sweat shop is better, then better is not enough.