Sweatshops or Jobless

It is interesting to discuss the low wage worker in developing countries and labor standard.  Can labor standard be enforced to what it should be like here in the U.S?

Enforcing labor standard in sweatshops too tightly is the same as trying to eliminate sweatshop itself. In other word, it is the same as to eliminate comparative advantage from developing world.  Nevertheless, factory audit like that is happening in Bangladesh right now might be a midpoint solution.

I strongly agree with Nicholas Kristof when he said in his rather old article Where Sweatshops Are a Dream: “The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there….”

I am not saying that tolerating labor standard in sweatshops means that they can abuse the minimum safety standard like that caused deadly factory tragedy in Bangladesh. What I want to say is that the labor standard in developing countries is not similar to that in developed countries. One situation that U.S. workers might consider unacceptable is not necessarily the case for Indonesian workers for instance.

The scavenging job example that Nicholas brings to convince his view in favor of sweatshops might be too dramatized, but in general it is the case in developing countries. Working situation in agricultural land for example, is not a lot better than his scavenging story.

In Java, most Indonesia’s populated island, young men and women from rural area have left their village just after graduating from high school or even  from middle school headed to cities to search for a job.  Working in Factories is among their destination. Some with less education find job as a nanny in a working-mother family for women and as a driver for men. Many others go to construction sites. Do not ask about labor standard to them. Job as a driver or a nanny in a household is far from regulated. As a nanny, often they have to work from early morning to late evening, seven days a week.

They simply accept those jobs since they do not have much choice. No promising jobs in villages, as they thought. Agriculture land has already shrunk. Most farmers have only less than a hectare land each. For sure, this job cannot be relied on to live. Others that do not own lands have to compete for few jobs from their neighbors.  Unfortunately, youths today are also not interested in this manual farming. Working in rice fields is dirty with mud, hot from sunshine, and also give little money.

Thus, working in a manufacturing factory in a city is much better for them compared to working in villages, working in an informal job in a city and certainly much better than unemployed. From this point, I think we should view this issue from the root of the problem and more importantly from developing world side rather than comparing it with the best practice in developed world directly.

6 thoughts on “Sweatshops or Jobless

  1. agolicz

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking post. It seems like sweatshops and child labor are more a symptom of an ill economy rather than the main cause. The working conditions in some of these factories are quite terrible, and yet the economy is so poor and the supply of alternative jobs is so low that people would rather resort to doing this miserable work than let their kids go hungry. This wouldn’t happen in a truly healthy economy, as one could simply quit their job if the working conditions became too poor and quickly find another one. On the topic of action, one thing that confuses me about the actions of some labor activists is that they attack the companies that outsource their labor to these sweatshops – wouldn’t it be more effective to hit the problem at its source? I’m sure grassroots efforts to help build the infrastructure and fertile environment for new businesses would go a lot further towards ending these labor issues than would staging a boycott of a clothing manufacturer. On the other hand, I will admit that the former would be a much steeper uphill climb.

  2. gaochen

    I totally agree with your idea that it is too early to apply labor standards to those poorest place in the world. What I want to add is the example in China. There are thousands of factories in Southern China producing clothes, toys and electronic devices. Most of the worker come from the rural areas of Fujian and Guangzhou. The owner never need to worry about the labor standards because it is those workers who want to work days and nights in order to earn more money. Although the labor supply is decreasing and the labor cost is increasing, there are still many people from poor villages want to go to big cities and work in these factories. Therefore, it might still need a long time before the labor standard could be applied to factories in developing country.

  3. gkugler

    In a perfect world, we would be able to replace these sweatshops with better jobs. These better jobs would offer higher pay and better working conditions. In reality, replacing these sweatshops with higher quality jobs is difficult. As you suggest, eliminating sweatshops might ultimately lead to joblessness. Would a person rather be employed by a sweatshop or be homeless? I think this is an incredibly disturbing dilemma, however, the answer is probably that a person would rather be employed by a sweatshop. This reminds me of one aspect about the minimum wage debate. Is it better to have a high minimum wage, which is supposed to increase living standards? Or is it better to have a low minimum wage? Many would argue that there are more jobs with a lower minimum wage. Would a person rather have a job paying a lower minimum wage or no job at all?

  4. alexfigu@umich.edu'alexfigu

    It is hard to argue from an ethical standpoint that sweat shops are good, but I would agree that we can not compare our country’s standards to others. I think you are correct in your analysis that the jobs in sweat shops are better than no jobs. If we were to refuse to purchase products made in sweatshops then we would also be inadvertently getting rid of jobs in these countries all together. This would be more detrimental to these people than sweat shop labor.

  5. zhuwei

    Excellent post!
    The angle you chose to view the issue clearly revealed the cause of the problem, and the impracticality of anti-sweatshop campaigns. Most of the time people can’t see the root of the problem because they fail to switch positions. We see all the bad things about sweatshops, bash them and appeal to the humanity. But no one truly asked the question “why do they ever exist?”
    As you’ve gotten to the root of the problem, I would love to hear more about your opinions of what we should do to solve the sweatshop dilemma.

  6. jhchamot

    Interesting post. It is true that people choose to work in sweat shops, often because that job is better than no job (or other hard labor jobs). But still, I am not satisfied with the argument that “they chose it, so let them suffer the consequences.” And it’s not about imposing other countries’ standards on developing standards, but it is about imposing basic human standards for working conditions. I think one way to help a country develop is to impose these standards, as opposed to waiting for them to happen after the country has developed. And as far as people accepting these conditions; do people in developed countries accept such conditions? Of course not. I think even if people working in sweat shops accept these conditions, it is important to change the mentality to demand better conditions. If everyone was okay with low-pay, poor-treatment jobs, it would make it hard for the country to develop quickly. However, that being said, it is not in anyone’s best interest to impose such regulations that will increase costs too much. But I think there must be a way to implement these changes in the long-run.

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