I’ve been completely overwhelmed this week with end of the semester work. Good thing nothing has happened in the news the last couple of days that might require some historical comment… Anyway, I’m starting to dig out. So let me at least take the time I’m glad that John Oliver dedicated his show this week to sweatshop labor. Basically, if you were to film a comedic take on Out of Sight, this is what it would look like.
Of course, conservatives are angry about it. And there’s nothing as smug and condescending as a British wealthy conservative.
We also know how to fix this problem. We should buy more from them. It’s worked absolutely beautifully in China. 15 years ago manufacturing wages there were $1,000 a year. Today they’re $6,500 a year. They’ve risen because we’ve been buying all our electronic bling from poor Chinese people working in Chinese factories. And our buying that bling has meant that jobs have become more productive (heck, electronics assembly is going to be more productive that staring at the south end of a north moving water buffalo however you do it) and the economy has taken off. And China started with those “start an economy” kits we call schmutter factories too. And in only 15 years China has grown rich enough that it no longer does that work. Even Chinese people don’t wear clothes made in China now, now that China’s got rich (which it has by any global or historical standard) that work is not done by poorer people in Vietnam and Indonesia. And guess what? They’re getting rich too.
Because that’s just how economics works. Trade makes everyone better off. That’s why the more trade we have then the more people will be made even better off.
And as at the top, I feel like as a Briton I should apologize. For surely anyone who manages, like Oliver, to get through one of our top universities would have learned that somewhere along the way? But apparently not, for which I do apologize.
Here’s the thing about this kind of argument, outside of the smugness,–people who make it conceive of labor exploitation as a gift the western world has granted to the poor of Asia and Latin America. This argument is much like colonialist arguments about giving Christianity and civilization to the natives. There is just enough of a kernel of truth here–people do need jobs!–to make a lot of people believe this basic narrative. There are of course several problems with it. First, the argument that China has become wealthy because it became the world’s sweatshop is vastly and overly simplistic, with state investments in the economy and centralized control over that economy being at least as important as people putting together plastic widgets for Walmart.
Second, it offers a religious faith in the market as a god that rivals any extremist Christian or Muslim for the damage it can do to the world. That diehard devotion to their ideal of free market capitalism means that conservatives aren’t going to ask any questions about the limitations of the current trade system, assuming that the gods will take care of it if we sacrifice enough
lambs on the altar children in the factories. The increasingly rapid mobility of global sourcing means that if workers protest or win higher wages or make any improvements in their lives, the companies can simply move to another country. The ability to create a global middle class out of these jobs is impossible. Bangaldeshis and Indonesians are not getting rich. An elite class is making bank. But workers are not recreating the U.S. in 1955 in Dhaka. At best, you might create a China with vast poverty and an incredibly wealthy elite. While the U.S. is also moving in that direction in no small part because all the good jobs for working class people have left, it’s not ideal for any nation’s long-term stability, as we are discovering in Baltimore.
Such religious devotion to capitalism also allows believers to completely ignore the voices of the actual workers. Again, when capitalist gurus and their devotees talk of sending low-paying jobs around the world, they treat it as a gift from the god of the market. So when workers complain of the treatment–bad wages, beatings, sexual harassment, forced pregnancy tests, long hours, poor housing, terrible food, etc., etc.–they are seen as ungrateful and not voices to which we need to pay attention. We can go along in our developed world believing that far away out their in Bangladesh and Vietnam, workers are happily toiling to make their lives better. But when they do actually try to make their lives better, to tell employers what they want and need, what happens? This is what happens:
For those who don’t want to watch it, a quick summary:
Just look what happens in the below clip from new documentary The True Cost. In the clip we meet 23-year-old Bangladeshi woman Shima Akhter, who is one of almost 4 million garment workers in the country and earns less than $3 a day making clothes in dangerous conditions. Akhter formed a union at her job, and along with other workers, submitted a list of demands to her managers. Instead of looking at the demands or even ignoring them, the managers had Akhter and the other workers viciously beaten by 30 – 40 staffers with chairs, sticks, and even scissors. Akhter was hit in the chest and abdomen and had her head banged against a wall.
Obviously John Oliver is an embarrassment to the British elite educational system–not to mention the University of Aberdeen for moving away from buying sweatshop made electronics–for caring about a woman like Shima Akhter. Because the market is after all a god and gods need sacrifices. So long as it is someone else and I can buy clothes for cheap, go for it. If 1100 people die in a Bangladeshi factory for this system, it’s far and what do I care. Ooh, those jeans are only $20!!!