Thursday, August 11, 2005

In praise of sweatshops.

Arnold Kling sings praises of third world "sweatshops"-- noting new research (.pdf) that shows they double the income of the people who work in them and put nations on the road to economic development.

Which brought to mind a moving article in the NY Times Magazine some while ago about how sweatshop labor brings more than just money to the poor, it saves lives...

it may sound silly to say that sweatshops offer a route to prosperity, when wages in the poorest countries are sometimes less than $1 a day. Still, for an impoverished Indonesian or Bangladeshi woman with a handful of kids who would otherwise drop out of school and risk dying of mundane diseases like diarrhea, $1 or $2 a day can be a life-transforming wage.

This was made abundantly clear in Cambodia, when we met a 40-year-old woman named Nhem Yen, who told us why she moved to an area with particularly lethal malaria. "We needed to eat," she said. "And here there is wood, so we thought we could cut it and sell it."

But then Nhem Yen's daughter and son-in-law both died of malaria, leaving her with two grandchildren and five children of her own. With just one mosquito net, she had to choose which children would sleep protected and which would sleep exposed.

In Cambodia, a large mosquito net costs $5. If there had been a sweatshop in the area, however harsh or dangerous, Nhem Yen would have leapt at the chance to work in it, to earn enough to buy a net big enough to cover all her children.
Of course, the classic mistake that naive opponents of sweatshops make is believing somehow that without them the people who work in them would be better off instead of worse off. They'd be home watching television, maybe. And the children, instead of working indoors in the factory, would be in some nice school probably -- not performing longer hours of child labor outdoors scavenging or in subsistence agriculture, in conditions much, much worse.

Even Paul Krugman (Slate era) has ventured praise of cheap labor and marveled at the righteously incoherent response he received from his liberal do-gooder readers...
Why, then, the outrage of my correspondents? Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land -- or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap?
And don't pretend that the anti-sweatshoppers don't really want to close them down but only to improve conditions, importing western labor practices -- Paul has the answer to that transparent ploy.

So, go ahead -- help the poorest people in the world, buy yourself some imported sneakers and insist that they come from a third-world factory using sweatshop labor.

Just do it.

Then feel good about having done your bit to help the world's poorest and most in need, to make the world a better place ... while enjoying your sneakers too!

And as to ilk like this ...
San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing the city council to adopt an ordinance that forbids the use of municipal funds to purchase uniforms and other clothing made in "sweatshops." Across the country, colleges often adopt similar standards for clothing displaying their school logos. North American unions, such as Unite Here, the apparel and housekeeping workers' union, often lobby to impose working standards for developing countries similar to San Francisco's proposed ordinance
... who hypocritically pose as helping the poor while in fact screwing the poor over for their own selfish political and financial gain ... well, tell 'em where to get off the bus. Preferably where it will run over them.