Wednesday, October 03, 2007


A couple of weeks ago I took part in a debate/panel discussion hosted by Victoria University's International Development Society. The discussion was titled "Sweatshops: a blessing or a curse". The other speakers were Roger Kerr (Business Round Table), Christopher LaMonica (Victoria University), Gary Reese (Amnesty International), and Keith Locke (Green Party).

My speech is posted in below:

Are sweatshops a blessing or a curse? This is not a question I can easily answer. Indeed, I don’t think there are easy answers to the dilemma of sweatshops. So tonight I aim not so much to bury or praise sweatshops but, rather, to try and bury simplistic arguments.

To do this, I want to start with a point that, while simple, is true. This is that, in a world as wealthy as ours, the existence of sweatshops is ethically abhorrent.

We live on a planet flush will millionaires and billionaires; yet also one which cannot guarantee humane working conditions and a living wage for all. This is profoundly unjust, and surely one of the key questions of our time is how can we change it?

Yet the moment you ask “how can we change this?” things become complicated.

To show you what I mean I’m going to ask another question: “what on Earth could be worse than working in a sweatshop?” It sounds like a rhetorical question but it isn’t because, as it happens, there are worse occupations.

Consider the following from the New York Times:

In Cambodia…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.

Compared to this, working in a sweatshop, despite the long hours, despite the low pay, is actually an improvement. Which is why, throughout various parts of Asia, tens of millions of people have migrated in search of such work.

Does this mean that sweatshop jobs are great jobs? No. Does it mean that the people working in sweatshops shouldn’t have better labour conditions? No. Does it mean that they shouldn’t be paid more? No.

But it does mean that we need to be careful what we wish for.

To give you an example of what I mean, consider the case of child workers in Bangladesh. In 1992 as a result of international pressure Bangladeshi exporters laid-off 50,000 child workers.

The outcome was not a happy one for the child labourers though, many of whom were forced by need to work as stone crushers and, in some cases, prostitutes.

If we are actually concerned about people working in sweatshops we need to concentrate on actions that can help lift them up out of the conditions they are in, not actions that push them out of sweatshops and down another rung on the economic ladder.

It is for this reason that I don’t think that opposing trade agreements with China or “Buy New Zealand Made” campaigns are a solution to the problem of sweatshops. What are we going to achieve if we stop buying clothes from China? Most probably we’re going to force a few people who currently have bad jobs into worse ones. This doesn’t strike me as a success.

While we are on the subject of over-simplistic approaches, I should point out that there are equally simplistic claims being made by the other side of the debate.

Particularly, the argument that sweatshops will be eventually confined the dust-bin of history by economic processes alone – as they supposedly were in our own countries. The problem with this is that we only got rid of sweatshops in developed countries with political activism. It wasn’t simply an economic process but also an organised campaign that improved working conditions. And the trouble is, in the case of China, for example, this can’t take place because independent trade unions are illegal.

Moreover, the improvements in living standards offered by sweatshops, while real, are tiny. Returning to an ethical perspective, couldn’t we be doing better than this? Shouldn’t we be doing better than this?

I think we should.

So what can we do?

Here are three suggestions.

1. Campaign against sweatshops, asking companies not to pull out of developing countries but to improve working conditions.

2. Buy fair-trade – it is a real solution. You can double the wage of jean factory workers and only increase the price of a pair of jeans by a couple of dollars. Fair trade sales in New Zealand grew by 141% between 2005 and 06 and there’s good research to show that the average consumer will pay a premium for ethical clothes.

3. Stop our business interests from actually making matters worse in developing countries. An example of this: when the Chinese Communist party recently moved to pass legislation that would improve worker’s rights, who lobbied hard and (partially) effectively against it? The US Chamber of Commerce and other Western Business Interests. Our business interests lobbying to stop the Chinese Communist Party from improving human rights! I’ll leave it to the representative of the business round table to discuss the ethics of this…

So, to conclude, by all means be appalled by sweatshops and strive for a world that is free of them. But do so with care, lest you harm the people you are hoping to help.


For people interested in 'the Sweatshop dilemma' and fair trade here's a few good links:

In Praise of Cheap Labor by Paul Krugman (makes a the pro-sweatshop case as good as it can be made).

A good explanation of the economic case for fair trade
by Alex Nichols.

Research showing the people will pay a premium for ethical products.

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