Spurred by this Washington Post profile in which National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan describes the sweatshop workers for whose rights he advocates as seeking to move “from misery to poverty”, Matt Yglesias makes the classic anti-anti-sweatshop/ anti-anti-child-labor arguments:
people who don’t have sweatshop jobs are miserable. So miserable, in fact, that the terrible conditions in sweatshops are better than their best other alternative. Closing down the sweatship option would seem to just force everyone to stick with misery…as long as the alternative to sweatshops is what anti-sweatship activists concede to be misery, then people will want the sweatshop jobs and it’ll be mighty hard for rich country liberals to stop corporations from making them available.
The assumptions Matt seems to be making here are the same ones for which Richard Rothstein took Nicholas Kristof and Paul Krugman to task last spring in Dissent. First is the idea that somehow Charles Kernaghan, the National Labor Committee and company are pushing Nike and company to pack up and leave the countries in which their agents are operating sweatshops. Put simply, they’re not. Neither is United Students Against Sweatshops, for that matter. The call is for basic working standards and fundamental human freedoms. The call is for codes of conduct which would be applied around the world, with wage standards based on local costs of living. As Keraghan tells the Post right after describing the aspiration of many in the third world to move from misery to poverty,
he gets angry when he recalls what a worker told him in Bangladesh: “If we could earn 37 cents an hour, we could live with a little dignity.” (As opposed to the 21-cent hourly wage that barely staved off starvation.) Another Bangladeshi worker told him of being smacked in the face by her boss when she worked too slowly. “It just destroys me,” he says.
What’s going to push that worker’s wages up from 21 cents towards 37 cents? Conservatives and neoliberals would have us put our faith in the free market’s grace in rewarding increased productivity with higher wages for low-wage workers as employers compete for the best sweatshop workers. But as Rothstein reminds us, that’s not how the story went in our own country. How did sweatshop workers in this country improve their working conditions and bring themselves real economic freedom? In part through judicious use of government to enshrine common labor standards in laws of the kind the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd tell us would condemn workers of the third world to eternal poverty. And in part through collective action of the kind for which workers around the world are fired or murdered. The anti-anti-sweatshop critics who insist that the eager workers of the third world are being victimized by misguided do-gooders from the first world might better expend their energies advancing the rights of those workers to stand up for themselves and for each other without fear of retaliation. That, incidentally, is exactly what Charles Kernaghan is doing.