The alternatives to sweatshops

By Billy Joe Mills

Many come to the University wearing guilt from their comfortable middle-class lives. How does a liberal college student atone for this guilt? By joining a student organization that hates something they don’t understand – sweatshops are a nice example.

Sweatshops have existed in the West since about 1830. It took many years, but gradually Western sweatshops disappeared. The developing world today is a snapshot of the West during the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, sweatshops and low wages are a necessity of going from an agrarian, undeveloped country to a modern economy. This is illustrated by the growth of the Asian Tigers economies – Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore – from sweatshops to semiconductors.

Many of our country’s liberal public intellectuals have made compelling cases in favor of sweatshops, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. On June 6 Kristof wrote, “Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.”

The worst aspect of sweatshops is child labor. But according to a report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, about 6,000 children resorted to prostitution when the U.S. nobly boycotted Nepal’s carpet exports.

In 1992 Democratic Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act. Sounds like a nice and progressive humanitarian bill, right? In response, garment employers in Bangladesh fired 50,000 children. The UNICEF report states, “The children may have been freed, but at the same time they were trapped in a harsh environment with no skills, little or no education, and precious few alternatives. Schools were either inaccessible, useless or costly.” Follow-up research by UNICEF revealed that children were forced to turn to “stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution – all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.”

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

Countries compete to attract multinational corporations. When “progressive” groups in the West compel poor countries to enforce modern minimum wage or union laws, it encourages these corporations to set up factories in other countries. The UNICEF report cites an example from South Africa, “Black women who worked in a Taiwanese-owned sweater factory asked for improved wages and the right to join a union. The company’s response was to close down all seven of its South African factories, putting 1,000 people out of work.”

Benjamin Powell, a professor of economics at San Jose State University, did a study on third-world sweatshops. He found, “In 9 of the 11 countries we surveyed, the average reported sweatshop wages equaled or exceeded average incomes and in some cases by a large margin.”

Sweatshops are deplorable, productive dungeons, but they’re easy to attack when you don’t look at the alternatives. People are choosing to work in sweatshops as opposed to doing something else or nothing at all – obviously the alternatives are even worse. Should third-world people starve and die so that guilty Americans can uphold their neatly crafted, unbending principles?

Billy Joe can be reached at [email protected]