I was surprised to see Ezra Klein endorse Nicholas Kristof’s column arguing that “the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.” Back in my college Macroeconomics class, this argument was expressed as “They’re not poor because they work in sweatshops. They work in sweatshops because they’re poor.”

Well actually, they’re poor because they don’t make enough money to support themselves. If the people who hire them paid them enough, they would not be poor. Providing jobs to people who would rather work them than stay unemployed doesn’t release whoever provides the job from responsibility for how they treat them, just as saving someone from drowning would not give me any more right to mug that person than I have to mug anyone else.

The Post reported in 2005 that National Labor Committee Head Charles Kernaghan

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.)

As CAPAF’s Sabina Dawan observes, it’s not as though the International Labor Organization and allied groups working to close such gaps and to see basic human rights protected in plants that make Western companies so rich are out to drive the people of Cambodia out of their jobs – or as though that’s the inevitable result of letting workers go to the bathroom, or leave work to give birth. Does Kristof believe that the Bangladeshi worker Kernaghan references makes 21 cents an hour because at 22 cents his plant would stop making a profit?

As Richard Rothstein wrote in his rejoinder to Kristof:

Kristof’s logic would require that worker productivity in Indonesia be precisely 25 percent of that in Mexico, or that the cost of other factors be lower in Mexico than in Indonesia, offsetting higher labor costs. Otherwise, he could not claim that if Indonesian wages rose even a tiny bit closer to Mexican levels, seamstresses would be expelled to the garbage dump. But he has no basis for making such assumptions. While labor standards vary from country to country, technology for assembling apparel does not-that is dictated from New York, for all countries. Apparel manufacturers consider many issues in deciding where to site facilities; labor costs are one, but relatively small differences in labor costs are not.
…Even if a modest increase in Indonesia’s minimum wage tempted manufacturers to move their facilities to, say, Mexico, the temptation would be frustrated if Mexico simultaneously enforced a comparable increase in its minimum. The fear that labor standards would cause manufacturers to flee only makes sense if some countries were exempt from global regulation. Kristof never explores why he thinks this is likely.

What’s so often missing from arguments like Kristof’s, backed by neoclassical economics, heartbreaking anecdotes, and the appeal of counterintuitive conclusions, is an engagement with questions of power. As Rothstein argues, the anti-anti-sweatshop crowd often point to the history of sweatshops in the American garment industry, but they choose to overlook that American garment workers rose out of poverty not just through hard work but through collective action and collective bargaining to achieve the “labor standards” Kristof consigns to scare quotes. But when sweatshop workers in third world countries join international labor and human rights organizations in demanding a better life, they don’t get laudatory Kristof columns.

Instead, they get threats to their lives. As Human Rights Watch observed last month, “there has been an ongoing pattern of violence against trade union activists in Cambodia.”

Economic coercion isn’t the only kind making maintaining the sweatshop status quo. Larry Summers, in classic neoclassical style, may defend sweatshop labor in the name of “respecting the choices” of the people who work there, but doing so without a peep for those workers’ right to organize without threat of murder is a cruel joke.

When Barack Obama mentioned the spate of assassinations targeting union leaders in Colombia, John McCain rolled his eyes. If Nicholas Kristof takes such violent intimidation more seriously, maybe he should devote a column to it. He could use a new bit – that Rothstein article critiquing Kristof’s sweatshop apologia was published in 2005.



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.