In defense of Sweatshops

Benjamin Powell, Assistant Professor of Economics at Suffolk University, is coming to the defense of sweatshops. In this article he makes several arguments:

– we need to look at jobs in the garment industry in the context of their countries’ economies
– Fighting for workers’ rights alone will lead to the unemployment of workers
– Workers’ rights can only improve if worker efficiency and productivity improves

Here’s an excerpt:

Should Kathy Lee have cried? Her Honduran workers earned 31 cents per day. At 10 hours per day, which is not uncommon in a sweatshop, a worker would earn $3.10. Yet nearly a quarter of Hondurans earn less than $1 per day and nearly half earn less than $2 per day.
Wendy Diaz’s message should have been, “Don’t cry for me, Kathy Lee. Cry for the Hondurans not fortunate enough to work for you.” Instead the U.S. media compared $3.10 per day to U.S. alternatives, not Honduran alternatives. But U.S. alternatives are irrelevant. No one is offering these workers green cards.

This graph shows that most apparel workers earn more than the average person in their country.

I agree that in most of these countries there are much worse ways of trying to make a living, but I’m not so sure about his numbers. Not that I know what the numbers should be, but that’s my point, no one can. He even admits to his assumption:

Data on actual hours worked were not available. Therefore, we provided earnings estimates based on various numbers of hours worked. Since one characteristic of sweatshops is long working hours, we believe the estimates based on 70 hours pr week are the most accurate.

I met workers that worked much longer than 70 hours per week, but didn’t get paid for more than 50. Numbers, like Chinese labor laws, are often pointless. Unless you do extensive worker interviews and studies, I don’t think there is anyway to obtain accurate estimation of wages paid or hours worked in most garment sectors

I’m not a big fan of the way he dismisses the passion of the anti-sweatshop movement. He talks like Charles Kernaghan, arguably the father of the modern movement, is a puppet of US protectionism. As if, Kernaghan’s fight for the workers around the world is a charade for his actual intention of preserving what’s left of the American apparel industry.

Powell’s essential argument is sweatshops are good. The anti-sweatshop movement’s argument is that sweatshops are bad.

In my opinion they’re both wrong.

Add a comment
Eva says:

Interesting stuff. I just finished “Travels of a T-shirt” on the weekend, and the stuff about “it sure beats the farm” or whatever was particularly effective in dislodging some of my preconceptions about sweatshop labour. Compelling points about women’s rights and gaining independence, etc, too. Funny, because my grandma got “off the farm” by going to work in a factory during the war…

Kelsey says:

“Travels of a T-shirt” does a great job of putting the politics and economics of the garment industry into perspective. If I could pick my book’s Amazon sister, it would be ToT. In a way the books are already siblings since we share the same publisher and editor.

The “it sure beats the farm” argument is one that I struggled with during my trip. The farms sure seem a lot nicer than the crowded, noisy cities. A lot of the farmers I met actually worked less than the garment workers, too. To me the argument should almost be “sure beats NOT having food to eat.”

My grandma sewed Lee bibs back in the day.

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