“Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops,” Nicholas D. Kristof writes.
Mr. Shaanika and the other young men noted that the construction jobs were dangerous and arduous, and that they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops. Sure, sweatshop work is tedious, grueling and sometimes dangerous. But over all, sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous — or sweaty — than most alternatives in poor countries.
Imagine that a Nike vice president proposed manufacturing cheap T-shirts in Ethiopia: “Look, boss, it would be tough to operate there, but a factory would be a godsend to one of the poorest countries in the world. And if we kept a tight eye on costs and paid 25 cents an hour, we might be able to make a go of it.”
The boss would reply: “You’re crazy! We’d be boycotted on every campus in the country.”
So companies like Nike, itself once a target of sweatshop critics, tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. And the real losers are the world’s poorest people.
In a separate article, Kristof writes,
Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.
“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”
If people want to work in a sweatshop, who are we to prevent them? They are not forced into sweatshop employment. The fact that people accept jobs in sweatshops logically means it must be their best option, otherwise they would have taken a job elsewhere. The removal of sweatshops wouldn’t provide better opportunities, it would deplete options. As Paul Krugman says,
When the movement [globalization] gets what it wants, the effects are often startlingly malign. For example, could anything be worse than having children work in sweatshops? Alas, yes. In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets — and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.
The point is that 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.
Sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.
When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.
Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.
“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”