In the regular News in Asia column, I’ve posted extensively about the tragic death and injuries of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh and the issues it’s raised over working conditions in factories there and throughout the rest of Asia. In April, a factory collapse killed hundreds of workers and before that, in November of 2012, fires at factories that made clothing sold in stores in the U.S. and Europe killed and injured hundreds.
There have been significant protests over sweatshops and unsafe working conditions for the last few decades (the last hundred years if you count the formation of worker’s unions and strikes during the advent of the Industrial Revolution.) The existence of sweatshops in Asia, South America and elsewhere has been an issue with many human rights and advocacy groups and criticism of labor practices crops up in the news and into the wider conscience at certain times. In the late 90s, Nike came under fire for the use of sweatshops overseas, specifically the practice of using child workers under the age of 18. In response, Senator Tom Harkin created the Child Labor Deterrence Act which passed in 1999. The bill would:
…prohibit the importation of manufactured and mined goods into the U.S. which are produced by children under the age of 15.
Apple came under fire for the sweatshop conditions at their factories in China that produced iPhones and iPads and promised to improve the working conditions in those factories and cut ties with manufacturers that used child labor. Most recently, in response to the factory collapse and fires in Bangladesh, Western clothing companies such as Zara and H&M have signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh in an effort to improve working conditions and factory safety for garment workers who make the clothes sold in their stores. Several U.S. based retailers did not sign the agreement, the biggest being Walmart.
So all this is good, right? Shady practices by big business are exposed and efforts are made to either shut it down completely or force them to change their practices. Well, it depends on who you ask. In light of the tragedies in Bangladesh, there are those who have stepped up to defend the use of sweatshops in developing nations. Buzzfeed has a great list of quotes from prominent economists and figures, defending how sweatshops and factories like the one that collapsed in Bangladesh are painful, yet necessary steps in the economic growth of developing countries. Some quotes date back to the 1990s, but it illustrates the argument made by some economists and Libertarians that factories like those found in Bangladesh are a necessity and how the alternatives are even less ideal. Most point to that the abysmal wages factory workers are paid is better than a farmer trying to feed his family on a small plot of land where his children are forced to work anyway. An article investigating a factory in China where dozens of workers have committed suicide over the last several months, points out that hundreds line up outside each day hoping for work. Nicholas Kristof of Half the Sky fame defended sweatshops in a 2009 op-ed piece for The New York Times:
But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough…In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom…The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there.
He later backed away from his stance a bit, but argues that as bad as sweatshops are, “The alternatives are worse.” An op-ed in Forbes magazine by Benjamin Powell argues much the same thing in the wake of the Bangladeshi factory collapse:
U.S. companies, of course, are concerned that their images will be tarnished if they’re associated with unsafe factories. Nike’s vice president of sustainable business said that Nike was concerned about working conditions and “decided to reduce our Bangladesh footprint” as a result. Unfortunately, if U.S. companies abandon these factories, hundreds of thousands of garment workers could lose their jobs and be thrust into worse alternatives.
Those worse alternatives, especially for women and children laborers, are begging, crime and prostitution. A UNICEF study conducted in the wake of the “Child Labor Deterrence Act” estimated that, “50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as ‘stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution,’ jobs that are ‘more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.'” There has been a narrative that closing down sweatshops leads to an uptick in sex trafficking and underage prostitution in the areas that once housed the sweatshops (though I haven’t been able to find many articles or studies that confirm this.) What this argument fails to point out is that women and girls working in sweatshops and factories face sexual harassment, assault and degradation anyway. So while economically, working in a factory may be a step up for women, they still face practices that strip them of their dignity and self-determination.
It’s a terrible Catch-22. Do western companies shut down the factories in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, leaving potentially thousands out of work? Do we support workers in those countries demanding better working conditions, knowing that international companies can move their operations to other countries who are desperate for their business? Consumers are beginning to question where their clothing and products are coming from, but that maze is a difficult one when even major manufacturers aren’t sure where their products are made. Most claim that there are so many subcontractors that it’s difficult to pinpoint where a piece of clothing was actually made. (For the record, I am suspicious of this passing of the blame to nameless “subcontractors.”) One alternative that’s been touted during my research is to buy all clothing secondhand or used. While the item may have originally come from a sweatshop in China, buying those items from your local Goodwill breaks that chain.
So what do you think? Are the economic gains worth the potential injury and loss of life to those who work in sweatshops and factories? Is there a way to support workers in developing nations as they fight for better wages and working conditions? Are women specifically better off working in factories where they may face harassment and assault if the alternative is prostitution?