That’s the question many people are facing after a horrific fire in a Bangladesh sweatshop recently killed more than 1,100 workers. But it isn’t always an easy one to answer.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof explains in this link, workers in some underdeveloped nations see a sweatshop as preferable to conditions they otherwise might work in. Here’s how Kristof put it in a 2009 column:
“I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.”
In essence, sweatshop employees may be making a rational decision to work in places most Americans would not set foot in. The demand for their goods leads to jobs that pay better than in other parts of a developing nation’s economy. And in better conditions, as hard as that might be to imagine
On the other hand, our demand for their goods is why sweatshops exist. And while those facilities may be better than others in a country, they also can be exploitative and even deadly.
I am also including a link to an interview that ran in The Dallas Morning News Points section. The Q&A is with Texas Tech professor Benjamin Powell, author of the forthcoming Sweatshops: Improving Lives and Economic Growth. He explains why he thinks Americans should not boycott sweatshops.
What do you think?
AMY MARTIN, Executive Director, Earth Rhythms; Writer/editor, Moonlady Media
As if slavery were acceptable as long as the salves punch a clock voluntarily. Every action we do impacts others, even those downstream, downwind or across the ocean. We are intricately interconnected on a small planet. Realizing this on a profound level is the key to a peaceful, sustainable existence.
Yet the planet’s perpetual consumption machine is rapaciously gobbling up not only natural resources, but human lives. The U.S. appetite for indulgence is the engine of this machine. Consumers shrug: This is the way things are. It’s what Paul Loeb describes society’s “learned helplessness” — a deep investment in a sense of powerless to affect change.
Supporting sweatshops is a Band-aid solution at best. This county spends trillions on wars of choice and the continual accumulation of expensive weaponry that quickly becomes outdated. Imagine if we instead spent a fraction of that on assisting countries to raise their standard of living. We could contribute our vast engineering knowledge to creating safer buildings and improving sewage treatment so that water is safe to drink. Assist in upgrading education, especially in science and math.
Goodwill toward the U.S. would increase dramatically. Poverty would be reduced at the source. And human rights would be elevated. In the process, we’d be creating better trade partners for the U.S. Yet no doubt the political will for such a massive shift is lacking. It would require a commitment, a commitment to life over profit.