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Op-ed: Sweatshops are good

Sweatshop jobs benefit workers in developing countries and should be supported

Op-ed: Sweatshops are good

If you can, take off one of your shoes. Go ahead; I’ll wait. Check to see where it was made. Chances are, your shoes, like most clothing we wear, were manufactured in a developing country in Asia or Latin America. Mine, for instance, were made in Vietnam. We all know that our clothes were made in factories commonly referred to as “sweatshops.” If you’re anything like most people, the thought of buying the products of such sweatshop labor makes you exceedingly guilty. Don’t be. When put into their proper context, sweatshops are necessary and beneficial to workers. To quote the renowned Keynesian Jeffrey Sachs, “my concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few.”

The ultimate problem for opponents of sweatshops is a failure of imagination. They simply lack empathy — the ability to imagine someone else’s perspective. I would not want to work in a sweatshop, and if you have the privilege of attending a university in America, neither would you. But not everyone is a middle-class American. Our country is rich enough to afford such a high minimum wage and strict labor standards. But the truth is, for hundreds of millions of people, sweatshops offer the best hope to escape crippling poverty.

I will present data to back up this point, but just the story of how much effort people put in to work in sweatshops should suffice to prove it. Some 150 million people in China alone have left their homes and moved across the country to get factory jobs. One simply does not uproot their life and leave their home to get a job they don’t really want. When factory jobs open up, thousands of people wait in line to apply. The fact that sweatshop workers choose their jobs, and that they put in so much effort to get them, must mean something. Simply put, as bad as sweatshops are, most alternatives much worse.

And the numbers bear this out. This 2006 study in the Journal of Labor Research analyzed sweatshops across Asia and Latin America and found that in 90% of countries analyzed, working ten-hour days in sweatshops lifts the worker’s income above the national average. In half of those countries, income rose to three times the national average. And this 2012 study from researchers at Duke University found that sweatshop workers in El Salvador believed that their factory jobs represented an improvement over their previous jobs in areas such as working conditions, job stability, location, benefits and schedule.

The research is pretty clear that sweatshops are significantly better than alternatives, but something is lost when you reduce the difference to numbers alone. It helps us empathize with sweatshop workers if we imagine the kinds of jobs they go to when factory work is not an option. Before they work in sweatshops, most factory workers in developing countries work in subsistence agriculture, which is one of the three most dangerous industries in the world according to the International Labor Organization — rivaled only by construction and mining. And if they’re not in subsistence agriculture, they might be in commercial agriculture, often as the slave of a chocolate company, for instance. Furthermore, in the past, when sweatshops have shut down due to boycotts, many workers have “turned to street hustling, stone crushing, and prostitution.” When people bash sweatshops, they are unknowingly advocating that poor workers take up these jobs instead.

And sweatshops not only reduce poverty, but they also provide empowerment for women. Research has shown that work in sweatshops delays marriage and pregnancy for women and girls, and also increases their school enrollment. Poor women in developing countries are among the most vulnerable people on the planet. Support of sweatshops is a feminist position.

So, what’s the endgame here? Surely, even if sweatshop labor is better than its wretched alternatives, we would ultimately want workers in developing countries to move to jobs even better than that. We would want to see an eventual end to long hours and child labor. These wants are legitimate, and the path to achieving them is through the arduous process of development. An economy can’t just jump from Bangladesh to Belgium over night, no matter how much you protest GAP. The truth of the matter is that factory labor is a necessary step in economic development. The notorious super liberal and Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman explains:

“[T]he growth of manufacturing...has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.”

The past success stories stories of sweatshops illustrate this principle and provide a model for the rising economies of today. For instance, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore used sweatshop labor to raise incomes from 10% of American levels to 40% in just one generation.

Sweatshops are used as a stepping stone to open up new possibilities for workers. Once these new jobs are made available, sweatshop work is no longer preferable, and conditions inevitably improve. We cannot ascend a ladder by knocking out the next few rungs.

For all these reasons, boycotting sweatshops is perhaps the worst thing rich, American consumers can do to the world’s poor. One more time, look at your shoe. If you bought it, or anything else, from a sweatshop in a developing country, pat yourself on the back. You made the world a better place.

Bobby Zitzmann is a freshman in the School of International Service.