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How Not to Talk About 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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  • KadeKo

    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.

    I’m calling it Shirtwaisting.

    • Ahurazo


  • Shakezula

    This boils down to “Any job is always better than no job” and has been the fave argument in support of exploitative labor since forever. We see it for overseas sweatshops. We see it for immigrant workers in nail salons. We see it for keeping the minimum wage too minimum to support life.

    It was certainly a favorite when outsourcing factory jobs really picked up steam. It was the new “Think of the starving children” with the added incentive that the Americans who lost their jobs would get better (i.e. white collar because blue collar is icky) jobs … somewhere. Trust us!

    (And anyone who believes that no one could have possibly foreseen that these outsourced jobs would become very hard to tell from slavery in a very short period of time should see me about an amazing offer on a bridge. Made of unicorns.)

    Which is a rather long way & ranty way of saying that supporting exploitative labor – like all neo-con arguments – is the easiest gig on the planet. You just have to recycle the same crap some other neo-con goon said and maybe sprinkle a few modern references in there.

    • rea

      “Any job is always better than no job”

      Might even be true from the point of view of the starving unemployed, but that doesn’t mean that sweatshops are morally right from the point of view of the owners, or a necessary step in economic development.

      • Shakezula

        Might even be true from the point of view of the starving unemployed

        And as we know, it’s possible to be fully employed and still not have enough money to eat, especially if the worker has dependents.

        But of course, the idea that “You won’t starve to death!” is the a meaningful statement about employment is extremely bizarre. It’s like saying “At least the employer provides breathable air (sorta)!”

        • xq

          The alternative choice is usually neither starvation nor unemployment, but inferior domestic employment.

          • Origami Isopod

            …which, of course, totally justifies sweatshops. Right?

            • xq

              No. There’s lots of evidence that improving wages and working conditions doesn’t reduce the benefits provided by sweatshops.

              • Origami Isopod

                If the wages and working conditions are decent, they aren’t “sweatshops.”

                • xq

                  Right, which is why I answered “no” rather than “yes”.

    • Origami Isopod

      better (i.e. white collar because blue collar is icky

      THIS. This can’t be said enough. There is so much goddamn classism in play here.

  • sleepyirv

    It’s due-payers view of the world. Just like Yglesias paid his dues by going to Harvard and interning for free, entire countries must relive 1890s America if to reach the same economic heights. Why, they should also grow bushy beards and travel by horse and buggy while they’re at it.

    Because one must paid their dues. Everything else is a free lunch and that’s just immoral.

  • Nobdy

    It is utterly bizarre to view the world as somehow out of synch when it comes to time and development, as if it’s 2015 on the U.S. but only 1915 in Bangladesh. There are all kinds of huge differences between sweatshops then and now
    For one thing, international trade was extremely different and integrated multinational consumer companies did not exist. For another, technology was completely different. It us unreasonable to expect a 1915 sweatshop owner to provide air conditioning, while doing so in 2015 Bangladesh is relatively easy.

    The world is a much richer and more advanced place. Consumers can afford to pay more. Comfort and health enhancing technology is available. The workers of Bangladesh are living in 2015 and deserve a 2015 standard of living.

  • Ann Outhouse

    Who funds Powell’s “research”? Walmart?

    I’m so tired of conservatives who have never endured anything like real poverty telling the desperately poor what’s good for them. But Powell’s greatgrandmother worked in a sweatshop so that makes him an expert.


  • Lurking Canadian

    If you pass a law that makes it illegal to make some item in a dangerous, environmentally unsafe manner in Canada (I’ll pick on my own people for a change)…

    Then pass a law that makes it illegal to tell other countries under what conditions they can produce that thing…

    Then pass a law that makes it illegal to levy tariffs against goods based on their country of origin…

    You have created a system that guarantees the item will be made in the cheapest way possible by the most unscrupulous characters in the most repressive shithole on the planet. That’s what the system is designed to do.

  • divadab

    A young relative was traveling in Bekasi, A suburb of Jakarta, where the Nike plant was that had just closed (it was in 2001 after the big PR attack ion Nike and they in panic closed the plant). He and his friend were confronted by a group of very angry young men who demanded to know why Nike had closed the plant and put them out of work. Good paying work by local standards. He had no answer but he almost had to fight it out when they tried to steal his shoes.

    It’s all very well to apply US standards in foreign countries but why not ask the locals first? CLosing the NIke plant was counted as a victory by labor folk like you-all but to the thousands who worked there it was a tragedy.

    So you know what? Ideology is bad whichever side of the spectrum you are on. And closing the Nike plant was a victory of mindless ideology over local employment. Nice work, libruls.

    • This is why you have to have international labor standards that follow companies around, with the onus placed upon them. As workers will say and I as have said repeatedly, closing these plants isn’t a victory. Improving the standards of these plants and allowing these workers to fight for a better life is a victory. This is why we need to work with the labor leaders of the developing world as consumers in the developing world and hold our companies accountable in ways that also empower workers on shopfloor in the streets.

      That you said that I consider closing the plants a victory I guess means that I have to keep repeating myself on these issues over and over again.

    • Murc

      It’s all very well to apply US standards in foreign countries but why not ask the locals first?

      The response from the locals has almost always been “we like the jobs, but we wish to be treated with respect and dignity and not like disposable cogs. If given the choice between the awful working conditions and no jobs at all, we will of course choose the former, but we would prefer the third option.”

      • A key reason to oppose fast track is that the Vietnamese labor movement also opposes it because they see the TPP as undermining their attempts to improve labor conditions in their country. This is what working with international labor is about–to find that third option.

    • Origami Isopod

      You must have missed the various posts on LGM about workers in other countries opposing “fair trade” and supporting better working conditions. Troll smarter.

  • Brett

    I can’t speak for Latin America, but sweatshops did help in China – they brought in valuable outside currency without having to borrow it, drove broader economic development, brought people into the cities, and provided a way for Chinese firms to acquire outside technology and know-how by means fair and foul. Incomes for Chinese workers really have gone up, by a lot.

    I think the difference is that China also provided the other stuff – education, stable macroeconomic policies, infrastructure – that enables countries to recycle export earnings into domestic investment that drives broader industrial development. Japan did something similar, and the same is basically true of South Korea (although South Korea went further and made state subsidies contingent on whether big companies could successfully compete in foreign markets).

    Latin American countries tend to not be so good at that, not even the democratic ones.

    • Brett

      I ran out of edit time, but I wanted to add this to my last sentence. This chart is a bit cluttered, but it shows how low investment as a percentage of GDP has been over time in Latin America compared to China, Japan, Korea, and so forth. US investment spending is about that low too, but the US was and is a lot richer.

      • Brett

        Oh, now it posts. Sorry for the double post.

        • For some reason the system has been kicking some comments into the spam folder. I retrieved it with the rest.

    • Brett

      I ran out of edit time on my last post, but I wanted to add this – it shows investment as a percentage of GDP over time. Investment in Latin America is and has been consistently low, much lower than the East Asian countries that got rich and about as low as the US and Great Britain (both much richer countries).

  • Brutusettu

    “We are not machines”

    sweatshops, with only some noteable exceptions, did help improve working conditions in South Korea.

    • Brett

      They certainly spark resistance which can lead to better working conditions.

  • Bruce Vail

    These pro-sweatshop arguments carry a lot of weight with many middle-class consumers.

    I had a discussion of sweatshops with one of my in-laws (upper middle-class, college-educated) some years back, and she was very quick to say “No American would work for that kind of wage but that is good pay in those poor countries. If the jobs were so terrible, they wouldn’t work there. Besides, if all the clothes were made in the US, we’d be paying $50 for a t-shirt.”

    She could not be moved at all off this argument.

    • Rob in CT

      They do so because they allow middle-class consumers to avoid feeling guilty about the system. And to be fair, I get that. I want to avoid it too. Most people don’t think they can do anything, so they’d rather not think about how shitty things are and how they’re perpetuating it.

      If we had international labor standards, we would pay more for t-shirts. It’s possible (though I doubt it) that those t-shirts might be better made. But the workers making the t-shirts would have more money and be able to buy things. Maybe even things made by middle class Americans (or Europeans, or Chinese, etc). And they would have lower chances of injury or death on the job. And their local environments would be better protected. And so on.

      That seems like a price worth paying. What is interesting to me is that middle/upper-middle class Americans are the ones who can afford to pay that price. I sort of get the anxiety of someone who shops at Walmart b/c money is tight. For people I interact with, though, there’s no reason to freak out about the possibility of more expensive t-shirts.

      • Origami Isopod

        Well, if there were better labor protections here and abroad, plus a social safety net, the cost of those T-shirts would be offset by affordable housing and healthcare, not to mention job security.

        • Rob in CT

          Sure, those things too, ideally.

      • xq

        This paper suggests you could double wages in the apparel industry at the cost of ~3% increase in retail price. Not really a big deal–clothing is already very cheap compared to other expenses in the US.

    • Brett

      Tell her that American Apparel’s wholesale t-shirts go for $3-6/each, and that’s for an American company producing shirts in the continental US. A company making shirts in a poor country is going to be even cheaper than that, even with clean factories and safe equipment.

      • Rob in CT

        I love that my company’s firewall blocks American Apparel’s website.

        I can go on Amazon, Walmart, Home Depot, whatever. But not them.

        • Brett

          Their website used to have straight-up nudity on it, but they’ve drastically scaled back or eliminated that since ousting Dov Charney. Maybe it was blocked beforehand.

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