Articles like that published last Monday entitled “Sweatshops hurt poor” represent so perfectly opinions held by people across this country and around the world that are so totally backward because of unawareness about real issues and the steps that need to be taken to resolve them. The article written in The Lantern discussing Ohio State’s efforts to reduce its use of sweatshops in the production of its apparel comes from a place of complete ignorance regarding the anti-sweatshop movement and what it stands for both at this university and across the country.
No anti-sweatshop campaign, at least no intelligent one, wants to rid workers in the developing world of their jobs, nor does it want to close down factories and move them to the U.S., nor does it want to destroy companies like Wal-Mart or Nike (though we can’t pretend some activists don’t have dreams of this while they sleep). So to say that anti-sweatshop campaigns, like the one conducted by United Students Against Sweatshops “harm those poor Third World citizens they claim to help” is a completely false statement coming out of pure ignorance.
What the group United Students Against Sweatshops does wish to accomplish is to work with the existing factories used by companies like Nike that currently have deplorable working conditions to improve their standards and end the plight of “those poor Third World citizens.” The goal is to create good jobs for the people of the developing world. Nowhere in the Designated Suppliers Program template, the program whose planning/working group Ohio State agreed to join this past spring, does it state that factories will be closed and jobs will be lost. The goal is cooperation among all members of the supply chain, the workers, factories, contractors, companies, universities and students, in order to create a safe working environment and decent living conditions for the workers, as well as products that we can be proud to own as consumers.
Jack Millman makes several interesting points throughout his argument in favor of the use of sweatshop labor in the developing world, but, like so many, he draws the wrong conclusion from his string of facts. The United States did suffer from deplorable working conditions and wages during industrialization, but the world marketplace was almost non-existent at that time, or at least certainly not as globalized as it currently is. There were no giant multi-national corporations that had the power of small nations (or large ones) raking in even more money than most developing countries.
For example, if Wal-Mart were its own country, it would be the 21st largest in the world according to GDP1. That’s a lot of power. How can a woman sitting at a sewing machine all day be expected to stand up to that? Only we, the consumers, have the power to change these companies. It is also true that these factory jobs are much better for those of the developing world than “prostitution or begging” but with companies at a constant race to the bottom in terms of pricing, and with wages being the easiest part of the supply chain to depress, how can the lives of these workers be expected to improve without intervention by us, the consumers who buy the products they make? The companies most certainly won’t voluntarily raise wages. We want to bring jobs to people of developing nations, just like Jack Millman said we should do, and that is precisely why we fight to change sweatshop factories into factories with good working conditions, environmental standards, living wages and decent hours.
In the end, we need groups like United Students Against Sweatshops who fight for the rights of people who are mostly invisible to both us and the companies they work for, and we should both applaud Ohio State for finally taking part in the cause and pressure them to do more to stop the abuse of workers that make our apparel.