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Anti-Sweatshop Movement

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    When discussing the anti-sweatshop movement, people seem to feel as though much more should be done to shut down sweatshops or to help workers gain higher wages and have better work conditions. Most economists, however, feel as though shutting down of sweatshops or raising wages and work conditions would hurt these third world economies. According to Benjamin Powell and David Sarbek’s report, Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? “Most economists view so-called sweatshops as a benefit to the third world and recognize that the anti-sweatshop activists’ activities could reduce third world employment and investment, thus making workers worse off. “ Most sweatshop workers are being paid more than their national average income. The alternatives to working in a sweatshop would place them far worse off. Many times you hear the comparison to American standard of living when discussing these conditions.

    Unfortunately, the standard of living and the average income in these third world countries is miniscule compared to America’s. Most of us have a mental picture of what a sweatshop is, probably a big room crammed with sweating harassed workers in a relatively miserable and abusive environment. How did they come into existence? They didn’t start with the recent proliferation of sneaker and clothing factories in Asia.

    Sweatshops began long before that when third-world people living in poverty came out of garbage dumps where they had been attempting to find some shred of useful material, out of poorly producing fields where they had been attempting to produce some meager food for subsistence, out of prostitution, starvation and unemployment and took what to them surely appeared to be steps in a better direction. They banded together in a cramped home and found employment supplying their labor to employers who, although may have been taking advantage of them, did provide something they were looking for and needed.

    While anti-sweatshop activists shed tears over sweatshop wages, one can’t help but ask, why has this gone on for so long if there is a truly negative effect? The garment industry seems to be in the spotlight the most about unfair wages. What the media fails to report is that the garment industry is actually one of the better paying industries in some of these third world countries. Some of these clothing companies also provide non-monetary compensation. “Nike’s employees in Indonesia, for example, receive free health care and meals in addition to their wages. (Benjamin Powell & David Sarbek, Sweatshops and World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? , p. 13) In Americans’ eyes, getting paid $3. 10 a day is unfathomable, although it is actually almost twice what some workers make in Honduras. At ten hours per day, which is not uncommon in a sweatshop, a worker would earn $3. 10. Yet nearly a quarter of Hondurans earn less than one dollar per day and nearly half earn less than two dollars per day. (Benjamin Powell In Defense of “Sweatshops”) In his article, Powell discusses the beginnings of the media focus on sweatshops.

    In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford met a fifteen year old, Wendy Diaz, who worked in one of her Honduran sweatshops. When she found out that this fifteen-year-old girl was actually a worker in one of her factories, getting paid $3. 10 a day, Kathie Lee promised higher wages. Kathie Lee has since become a face and voice for the Anti-Sweatshop Movement. What many activists fail to remember is the conversion rate. While a garment worker’s daily wage here may not be enough to purchase a tank of gas, it surely would be more than enough to survive on in Honduras.

    Many times in the past twenty years, Americans felt they should boycott companies who employ sweatshop workers. Activists start these boycotts in hopes that they could change the conditions of sweatshops. According to Benjamin Powell, boycotting sweatshops will only cause closures, forcing sweatshop workers – young and old alike – to deal with worse alternatives. In a 1993 case U. S. senator Tom Harkin proposed banning imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. In response a factory in Bangladesh laid off fifty thousand children.

    What was their next best alternative? According to the British charity, Oxfam, a large number of them became prostitutes. (Benjamin Powell In Defense of “Sweatshops”) Although, meaning to do well, boycotts of these sweatshops will essentially harm these workers. Without the sweatshops, these workers could end up unemployed, starving, or forced to work in worse conditions, such as prostitution. In third-world countries residents have huge impediments to free enterprise based on the majority having no rights of ownership.

    They do not own property and therefore cannot borrow or engage in businesses on their own without huge bureaucratic roadblocks, as Johan Norberg explains in his In Defense of Global Capitalism, in this environment where else can these people in need of income turn but to employment in sweatshops? While the conditions inside a sweatshop may not be ideal, we must consider the alternative. On January 15, 2009, New York Times columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof visited a garbage dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. What he saw and heard may shock you.

    There were children barefoot digging through the trash amongst rats, searching for plastic cups so they could sell them to recyclers for five cents a pound. While talking to these young adults and their parents, Kristof heard the same story repeatedly. These poor Cambodians would love a sweatshop job. In fact, some of the parent’s were hoping their children grow up to one day, work in a factory. Vath Sam Oeun hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children ran over by garbage trucks.

    Her boy has never been to the doctor or dentist, and last bathed when he was two, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous. (Nicholas D. Kristof Where Sweatshops are a Dream 2009) In America, sweatshop conditions are not ideal, as we have many other options, but in these struggling economies, closing sweatshops would harm the workers. More people would be forced out on to the street to collect plastic bottles, or worse. At the very least, their economic choices would be more severely limited.

    When unions, when protectionists, when uncompetitive corporations in the U. S. say that we shouldn’t buy from countries like Vietnam because of its labor standards, they’ve got it all wrong. They’re saying: “Look, you are too poor to trade with us. And that means that we won’t trade with you. We won’t buy your goods until you’re as rich as we are. ” That’s totally backwards. These countries won’t get rich without being able to export goods. (Johan Norburg—Poor Man’s Hero – an interview with Nick Gillespie, editor in chief at reason. com. 003, September. ) Sweatshops can make or break a struggling economy. They are a strong way to raise exports, as well as keep the population from starvation. While I will be the first to admit, I would not like to work in a sweatshop, people have the choice to work where they wish. It is unfair and unethical to take away a strong source of revenue and income for these poor countries. As senior UN Advisor and professor of economics, Jeffrey Sachs said, “My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few. ” (Bender, Daniel E. Greenwald, Richard A. – Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective, p. 243)


    Powell, Benjamin & Sarbek, David (2004, September 27) Sweatshops and Third-World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? Written for The Independent Institute Retrieved on November 25, 2012 at: http://www. independent. org/pdf/working_papers/53_sweatshop. pdf Powell, Benjamin (2008, June 2) In Defense of “Sweatshops” Article featured on the Library of Economics and Liberty website. Retrieved on November 26, 2012 at: http://www. conlib. org/library/Columns/y2008/Powellsweatshops. html Kristof, Nicholas D. (2009, January 15) Where Sweatshops Are A Dream Column for the New York Times. Retrieved on November 28, 2012 at: http://www. nytimes. com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof. html? _r=0 Bender, Daniel E. , Greenwald, Richard A. – Sweatshop USA: The American Sweatshop in Historical and Global Perspective, p. 243 Gillespie, Nick – Poor Man’s Hero Article featured on the reason. com website. Retrieved on December 1, 2012 at: http://reason. com/archives/2003/12/01/poor-mans-hero

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