Letter to the Editor: Think about workers before you talk about sweatshops
We have lost our humanity. I’m not talking about the kind Jimmy Carter talked about in his televised speech in 1979. I’m talking about when we reach a point where we justify practices of sweatshop labor as something to be happy about and encourage more of them, as was stated recently in the Opinion section of “The Eagle” in a piece written by Bobby Zitzmann.
I am an economics major and I understand the principle of why one would think industrialization and job creation from farming to factories is good. It is, I won’t argue that. However, I am also a decent human being, and to ignore the sub-human conditions and human rights abuses workers face in sweatshops is not only uneducated, but also immoral.
Zitzmann has every right to voice his opinion, but I equally have a right to dissent for his lack of humanism on the subject and to show how dangerous his view is for the future safety of workers internationally.
To start, a large part of Zitzmann’s argument is that opponents of sweatshops lack empathy and imagination to understand the workers who end up in these factories. He largely relies on the success of millions of rural-to-urban Chinese migrants to these factories, which have led to overall improvements in wages and income. He even goes as far to say that sweatshops provide empowerment of women and that supporting sweatshops is a feminist position.
If Zitzmann had more empathy and compassion for these workers, he would have noticed that these Chinese workers continue to experience routine underpayment of wages along with worsening, unsafe working conditions than in their former rural positions according to this New York Times article.
He would have noticed that Indonesian girls in factories are harassed and sexually assaulted by their male managers. He would have noticed that Bangladeshi women in garment factories are paid such low wages that they are effectively trapped in abusive conditions and sexual harassment.
One of these workers in an interview said that she is forever in “a state of abject powerlessness.” This is not to mention the routine sweatshop fires and building collapses that kill hundreds every year in Bangladesh. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
He later goes on to quote Paul Krugman to further promote sweatshops as a part of overall economic development and that it is natural to focus our economic efforts on these urban centers with factories. Paul Krugman’s argument that an alleviation of rural poor to these urban factories improves conditions there and reduces unemployment and competition in urban centers is idealistic at best. This idea of development is tied to colonial strategies of improvement of urban centers rather than rural development, where many of the impoverished in the world reside.
The argument that workers freely choose to work in sweatshops because it will be an improvement in their lives and economic opportunity is naïve at best. A UNDP report on violence in labor markets argues that workers who end up in sweatshops have no alternatives to their livelihoods and are forcing to sell themselves into sub-human conditions, known as “structural violence” of unemployment. Between either hustling, stone crushing, and prostitution (as Zitzmann points out as the worse option) or working in over-crowded, windowless buildings that could potentially catch on fire or collapse, it’s easy to see workers don’t have any viable options.
Zitzmann’s idolization of the Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) again solely views economic improvement as overall improvement. The article he cites even states, “The United States had sweatshops in the 19th and 20th century: look at our economy now.” Yes, we did have sweatshops. But who remembers the history lesson of the working conditions of the immigrants in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in New York City that killed 145 workers? Ominously parallel to the factory fires in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
So what now you ask? Do we argue for the opposite of Zitzmann’s opinion and boycott sweatshops? No! Industrialization and factories are still an important framework for developing countries. But we can and should be doing better.
We need to not advocate for the expansion of sweatshops just because “it’s a better option,” but rather we should be advocating for improvements in working conditions in these factories so that workers don’t have to worry about whether they will die today or not. Support organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum and the Clean Clothes Campaign if you truly want to make a positive impact on workers in developing countries.
If you want to make meaningful change to the lives of the working class in the developing world, become fashion conscious and demand safe supply practices. It has worked before with the successful creation of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.
However, if you are that desperate to feel humanitarian, then go ahead. Pat yourself on the back for buying some shoes from Zara or H&M. But remember that whatever you do, there are actual lives involved.
Dan Fitzgerald is a junior in the School of International Service.