Fighting against sweatshops is a popular, easy and misguided cause; popular because everyone hates sweatshops, easy because most people don’t do anything more than sign a petition or attend a protest and misguided because the consequences of fighting against sweatshops are very negative to those in the third world. Organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops harm those poor Third World citizens they claim to help.
Ohio State’s decision to join a group working against sweatshops, as detailed by the Sept. 30th Lantern article, is one more mistake in a chain of misguided actions by anti-sweatshop advocates.
Being pro-poor and pro-sweatshops may seem counter-intuitive, but the most important thing to remember is that people choose to work at sweatshops. No one is forced to take a job. They do it because it is superior to the alternatives. As the Nobel Prize-winning liberal economist Paul Krugman put it (referring to sweatshops), “The overwhelming mainstream view among economists is that the growth of this kind of employment is tremendous good news for the world’s poor.” Sweatshops have been shown to reduce poverty and malnutrition while steering workers away from occupations such as prostitution or begging.
Poor citizens of the Third World flock to these jobs because of the opportunities it gives them. Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times states how sweatshops are a real and effective cure for poverty. He argues that building sweatshops, not giving foreign aid, is the best thing students and the West can push for. It is the sweatshops launched by globalization that have lifted millions out of poverty in Asia and Africa and assisted the rise of the middle class.
Americans recoil at 60 hour weeks at 30 cents an hour, forgetting that the United States had the same issues when it was modernizing. Current work conditions at many of these factories are hellish and would be unacceptable in the United States. Yet, wages will rise and job safety will improve as citizens reap the benefits of industrialization. Attempting to interfere will only disrupt this process. Like in industrializing America, millions are fighting for factory jobs to improve their and their children’s future. They do this because the wages are often higher than the alternatives while working conditions are often better.
Attempting to force idealized American standards on the Third World is arrogance at its finest. In a perfect world everyone could work forty hours at a comfortable wage. We do not live in that perfect world, and to ignore the consequences while trying to make the world perfect is inexcusable. To paraphrase Mr. Kristof, instead of students protesting against sweatshops, they should be fighting for more.