The Null Device

Sweatshops are good, mmmkay?

An article putting forward the case that sweatshops are good for the third world, that the alternatives are much worse, and that anti-sweatshop campaigns, run by well-meaning humanitarians, do more harm than good for the conditions of third world workers.
Nike used to have two contract factories in impoverished Cambodia, among the neediest countries in the world. Then there was an outcry after BBC reported that three girls in one factory were under 15 years old. So Nike fled controversy by ceasing production in Cambodia. The result was that some of the 2,000 Cambodians (90 percent of them young women) who worked in those factories faced layoffs. Some who lost their jobs probably were ensnared in Cambodia's huge sex slave industry -- which leaves many girls dead of AIDS by the end of their teenage years.

I've heard this argument before from "free trade" advocates pointing out how daft the Nu Marxists are. How much truth is there in it?

(Of course, this is separate from the issue of whether there is such a thing as a "free market", or whether what they call "free trade" is not just a way for the US/EU/&c to push smaller economies around.)

There are 9 comments on "Sweatshops are good, mmmkay?":

Posted by: bzackey Wed Jun 26 04:12:04 2002

Corporations that take advantage of poverty in order to increase their own bottom line are pretty craptacular, but the crusading individuals who forced them to shut their factories down shouldn't pretend that their moral superiority has helped anyone in the slightest bit.

Posted by: recrea33 Wed Jun 26 04:46:58 2002

lesser of two evils.

...and who is funding cambodia's sex slave industry?

Posted by: Chris Adams Wed Jun 26 05:25:32 2002

It's fairly common - remember the textile workers in Bangladesh complaining when the factories closed and they ended up subsistence farming again?

I'm not sure I like it but there's a certain amount of support for a theory of gradual progress - it wasn't all that long ago that many people in what are now first world countries worked in very similar conditions.

Bypassing that slow process of improvement doesn't seem to be very successful - pushing the collective experience of a given population is decidedly non-trivial and you can't cover just one of the gaps - you need to get them all - capital, education, halfway sane economic environment, basic civil rights, etc.

Posted by: Jimbob Wed Jun 26 10:54:01 2002

Subsistence farming....the ironic thing is, the world cannot SUPPORT an entire global population who live in the same conditions as people in the west. It doesn't fit the system. The future is not a matter of people in Cambodia and Bangladesh making gradual progress until they can all live like Australians (the criteria that capitalist supporters of free trade base their aims on). It's more likely going to be a gradual slide of the quality of life of people in rich countries until we fit within our ecological footprint. The current world order is artificially propped up by the (not so) free market system, and when it comes crashing down, have your shelter full of tinned food ready. [/manifesto]

Posted by: acb Wed Jun 26 13:57:30 2002

Great; so life will normalise itself as nasty, brutish and short again, with everybody having to toil constantly to stave off starvation, except for perhaps a few aristocrats.

Whatever happened to futurism, extropianism and unlimited possibilities? We were supposed to live forever in uploaded nanoscale hive-communities run off infinite solar energy in space or something.

Posted by: Toby Wed Jun 26 15:01:35 2002

jimbob, you're absolutely right. the article in question is pure "spin"; it is designed to deflect attention from the horrendous bigger picture, by focusing on specifics. this is how the money manipulates the masses to maintain the status quo... ever noticed how that piece of shit "MX" is picked up by 80% of commuters? media mogul's wet dream. And how come all the dispensers are on public land? how come there is no competition? ... Huxley - where are you?

Posted by: Paul http:// Wed Jun 26 17:07:51 2002

Is the investor class going to complain if we bomb afganistan back to the stone age, making sweatshop jobs look good to the unfortunate inhabitants compared to starving in a landscape of rubble and UXBs? It opens that avenue right up to the mega-corps and their fetish for demoralized and desperate labor forces.

Posted by: Reenhead Wed Jun 26 21:27:19 2002

How about two stones for two birds? You can't improve people's lot by getting rid of free trade. You'll push people into worse work. Yet, the work provided by oppressive companies fleeing abroad ain't all that hot, either. So how about initiatives to BOTH halt child labor, prostitution, etc, and initiatives to get companies to shape up? The debate doesn't necessarily just come down to "trade good/trade bad."

Posted by: Jimbob Thu Jun 27 00:10:58 2002

I think a lot of it comes down to "free trade" not really being free. Free trade can never help impoverished people unless we have free movement of people as well. Liberating the movement of capital without liberating the movement of human beings simply enhances the unequal distribution of wealth. A US manufacturer can move it's factory to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages, and lax environmental and labour laws, but if a poor Mexican tries heading north to make a better life for his family he's likely to get a bullet in the back when he crosses the border.