Saturday, January 17, 2009

Do As We Say, Not As We Did

What do you think about this video from the New York Times about sweatshops in Cambodia? President elect Obama plans to launch a campaign to raise global working conditions. We would pressure foreign nations to abandon practices like the use of sweatshops.

The video argues that many people in the developing world would love to work in a sweatshop, because the alternative is digging through trash.

Obviously, none of us would like to work in a sweatshop, and the thought of our clothing being made in one makes us feel bad that we have eight-hour work days, child labor laws, unions, minimum wage, mandatory breaks, etc. But the narrator of the video makes a good point--the solution to global poverty is the introduction of manufacturing jobs to the developing world. Without manufacturing jobs, the poorest nations will continue to grow poorer.

When a nation develops a manufacturing sector, the initial jobs are in sweatshops. However, even these sweatshops boost the local economy and stabilize the government. Eventually, higher end jobs will come to the country, boosting the economy and stabilizing the government even more. Who would work at a sweatshop for $1 a day if the factory next door is paying $2 a day? Who would work for $2 if someone is offering $10? But, manufacturing jobs that pay $40 an hour are not going to move to countries like Cambodia. There isn't an education system, economy, or government to support it. Those need to be developed over time.

Now, the other side of it is that the people who control the means of production will exploit workers whenever possible. Even if a factory can afford to pay its workers a living wage, it may continue to pay them $1 a day--especially if poverty is rampant and uneducated people are desperate for jobs. So government/economic pressure is appropriate at times to make corporations do the ethical thing.

But here is the question of the day--Should we oppose sweatshops in countries like Cambodia, or are they a natural starting point for bigger and better things? And before we tell others what to do, perhaps we should think how our country became great. We have child labor laws and working condition laws now, but that wasn't always the case. America became great through sweatshops. Think China. Sweatshops in the past, economic superpower today. The same is true for both Japan and India. Is there an economic power today who didn't at one time use sweatshops? Do these powers have the right to tell others not to do the same--"Do as we say, not as we did"?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for starting a conversation on this important topic. How misguided (and maybe even arrogant) of Americans to pretend to speak for someone else in another country when we really don't know if they are unhappy with their working conditions. It's possible that they are thrilled to have a higher paying job (or a job at all) then those scavaging for garbage.

I would like to hear from the "sweatshop" workers themselves.

Let's not presume to know what they are thinking.

Compassion for the poor and disadvantaged is a good thing. Hopefully our desire to help
"the least of these" can be channeled into action that will really improve their lives.

Thanks again,

Gig Harbor