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How Not to Talk About Sweatshops

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Sweatshops

Active defenders of sweatshops really get under my skin because they combine a celebration of labor exploitation with cherry picking historical examples in order to create a false narrative of sweatshops leading to future national economic success.

Not so, says Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics and business at Texas Tech University who, controversially, argues that sweatshops are economically and socially beneficial to the countries they’re in.

“If you care about the consequences for the lives of developing nations workers I believe it is ethical to buy products made with sweatshop labor,” he says. Powell argues that sweatshops are not exclusive to poor countries in our modern, globalized world.

“My ancestors worked in the mills in Massachusetts. For the United Kingdom and the US, the process of development took more than 100 years to move through the sweatshop phase,” in which women and children worked in cotton mills, factories and manufacturing, he says.

Powell doesn’t suggest that sweatshops should be permanent fixtures but a stage in the development of developing nations, and they “often pay far above the levels of extreme poverty that exist in these countries and often even better than the countries’ average incomes. In 1960, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea all had sweatshops,” he says, but “in a generation they jumped from a pre-industrial standard of living to first world status.”

Major eyeroll here. First, sweatshops are not beneficial for these countries. They are rank exploitation. The sweatshops themselves did not lead to the economic explosion of South Korea and Taiwan. It’s not like those sweatshop workers were gaining skills that led to an information economy in Korea. And it’s not like the long-term sweatshops of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to those nations rising economically. Rather, they have just been a next stage in a century of post-colonialist exploitation by American corporations. Note that the people making these arguments that sweatshops are great never reckon with the Latin American examples. They only focus on the Asian Tigers. But those nations have alternative reasons for their economic rise that include a) being close Cold War allies of the United States that led to massive economic growth as part of US foreign policy and b) steel and other heavy industries building huge new factories that out-competed the outdated US steel mills of the 1970s and 1980s, eventually forcing them to close. The heavy industry of China is a big reason why that nation has risen economically. Neither of those factors are likely to repeat themselves in the low-wage sweatshop economy of Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In other words,

And Lowell and the Triangle Fire were not necessary moments in the history of the rise of the American economy. The idea that the heavy exploitation of women workers in apparel factories is somehow required to have economic growth is completely absurd. Rather, these are highly avoidable situations where modern companies could still take advantage of relatively cheap labor while also not killing these workers, forcing them to undergo sexual harassment, pregnancy tests in order to work, stolen wages, etc. These are false choice offered by the defenders of the global race to the bottom. Back to the linked article:

“About 4 million people in Pakistan work in the textile industry and 95% of them never get the paperwork to prove it,” says Nasir Mansoor, deputy director of Pakistan’s Nation Trade Union Federation. “This means there’s no way for them to fight for their rights if something isn’t right.” The garment sector, he says, has some of the worst conditions for workers in the country.

“All garment factories, by law, have to register with the Pakistani government, but we estimate that 90% fail to do so and the government doesn’t enforce the law. It wasn’t too long ago that even inspecting the factories that were registered became outlawed in some provinces so there was no way to know what was happening in them either.”

It was only after the Karachi garment factory fire of 2012 that killed nearly 300 people and injured a similar number that the inspection ban was lifted.

Sajida Khanum, a 45-year-old, has only ever worked in sweatshops. She doesn’t want to disclose which factory she’s working in now for fear of losing her job and being blacklisted from working in factories again.

She says there is no security in her job, and that sometimes, when there is not enough work to do, she has to beg her contractor for work. Khanum gets paid about 40 cents per item she makes. “We have to work fast because we get paid per dozen garments.”

Khanum has been working in garment factories for 15 years. She says most workers live the contradictions of working in sweatshops. “We all do it because its necessary, what else are we to do? I’m uneducated, all I know is this job.”

It might be a hard pill to swallow, but what Pakistani garment industry workers Ahmad and Khanum say reflects what Powell has found in his research.

“When workers choose to take employment in a sweatshop, it demonstrates that they believe it is the least bad option available to them,” he says. “That means that, relative to their previous situation, these sweatshops improve their lives.”

Despite the rather specious reasoning over worker choice offered above (what other choice do these workers have, starvation? prostitution?), I do agree that we should not shut down these factories if we aren’t going to replace them with something else for these workers. After all, Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladeshi workers’ movement, urges developed world consumers not to boycott these clothes because these workers need jobs.

So how do we fix these conditions while also empowering women workers and helping the world’s poor increase their economic status? As I’ve said in Out of Sight (now available for a Madison presidential election price of $18.08!), we have to create international standards that allow the poor of the world to live dignified lives and create middle classes of their own in ways that do not accept rampant exploitation. That must place power in the hands of workers to sue these corporations like Walmart and Gap if they or their contractors violate international standards of wages, working conditions, and pollution. This is how you create middle classes in nations like Bangladesh while taking away the incentive for these multinational corporations to move to the next nation as soon as these workers succeed in forming a union or enforcing a minimum wage. This is how you work toward international labor solidarity and it’s how you push back against defenders of the exploitation and murder of poor workers on the job.

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