Sunday, April 11, 2010


Talking about life being unfair, I recently read something I should have in early 2009. Nicolas Kristoff, a New York Times journalist, wrote a piece then about the garbage dumps in Cambodia where mothers, seeing their children pick scraps at the dump-yards, feel the next best alternative is to work in a sweatshop. When I first heard of these shops, three years back, I was shocked to note Nike’s notoriety for manufacturing shoes in plants in Bangladesh in obnoxious labor conditions. I scoffed at such sweatshops that reminded me of the deadly Nazi labor camps; so much for my penchant for analogies.

Kristoff nearly pulled off a benign controversy (better to call it a timely debate). What he was suggesting was that as bad as the sweatshops were, the alternatives were even worse. As one commentator put it, we’re committing the Nirvana Fallacy:

We’re comparing their conditions with our relevant alternatives, and reasonably finding them wanting from that standard, when we ought instead to be comparing their conditions to their relevant alternatives. Comparing their conditions with our relevant alternatives, well, we might as well be wishing for ponies.

So there are two aspects to this entire debate: one, are the labor wages pretty worse and two, if liberated from sweatshops, what would they do? Some estimates show that compared with the average national income, sweatshop wages in countries like Cambodia were more than double. This would mean that the sweatshop wages may be poor by standards, but are better than what other alternative jobs pay. But I was just wondering are wages the only measure of an individual’s well being? Isn’t it that such wages compromise the capabilities at large.

So, what about the freed people, after companies like Nike and Reebok closed their factories in Pakistan? Most children ended up begging, picking rags or in prostitution rings? So, in attempts to liberate the children, we are causing them more harm. So, does this mean we should let them sweat it out in such hazardous conditions? No point in whining about it; support the work of charities, trying to lift the kids off the dumps into schools and ensure that they see the light through till when they can be dignifiedly employed elsewhere.

Kristoff’s article invited nearly 200 comments; skimming through some of them, I noted these interesting ones:

The problem is that we've got a WTO that doesn't consider labor standards and basically no comparable international mechanism to effectively regulate labor standards. That puts workers all too often at the mercy of capital which can move much more freely across borders than labor. So it's an unequal playing field.

The way to correct it is to ensure that people can earn a living wage in the country where they live, and you need an international mechanism to do it so that capital can't play workers in, say, Bangladesh, off workers in Thailand or Cambodia.

So "sweatshops" no; dignified work, yes.


Take a look at the cost of the average running shoe, for instance. The labor cost is about 5% of the price. The brand-name profit is 13%. Increasing the worker's share to, say, 8 or 9% would make a huge difference to the worker without meaning a substantial reduction in profit for the US-based running shoe company.

There's enough to go around, but since corporations are obligated by law to maximize profits for shareholders, you can't count on them to make the changes-- the changes need to be political.”


Sweatshops don't pay people - it borders on forced labour and in the very least exploitation. And you get what you pay for: poor quality, high-defect rates, unmotivated workforce, high rates of turn-over, theft of material, absenteeism and violence, on both sides.

Sweatshops do not advance the next generation. It is people's desire to create a better life for their children that motivates an individual to work hard and make that happen, in spite of the sweatshop mentality. I wonder if those people losing jobs here in the US will accept or work hard at a professional job for half pay of what they formally were paid - and to tell them there are many who will take your place if your don't is not a justification for such treatment. Poverty creates social unrest.”

1 comment:

dollar and yen said...

Reasonably well constructued argument and a genuine attempt! However, in the existing times when capitalism is the accepted norm across the world, such voices have little relevence. At the very best the counter argument would be: let the people escape from the clutches of poverty all by themselves as many individuals in the past have. And at the very worst: some people are capable only for such work.

Leaving the moral side of the arguments to idealists and intellectuals, a normal mortal such as me would get on with his job: I cannot change things around me, but i can change myself and i choose to change myself for better. I may be branded as selfish, but that is what capitalism professes, isn't that?