Outsourcing: The Good Side of Asian Sweatshops

Even in our modern world, sweatshops remain a horrifying reality, with hundreds of thousands of the world’s poor and defenseless people exploited by wealthy factory owners and greedy supervisors. Their jobs, perhaps better termed slavery, involve back-breaking hours in pitiful conditions, sometimes using toxic chemicals without adequate ventilation or protective gloves or goggles, for pennies per day. Stories of children stitching fancy beadwork by candlelight at midnight, female workers forced to provide sexual favors to keep their jobs and workers refusing to drink fluids in sweltering heat to prevent the necessity of bathroom breaks are all too common and all too true.

So, how could there be a good side to this? And why would any self-respecting industrialized nation purchase products made in such a fashion? The instinctive, gut-level reaction is to boycott these goods; is that wrong?

In a word, yes.

On average, the employees of sweatshops work there because they have no better alternative. Children work in such conditions, not instead of going to school but because they have no school to attend or no means to support themselves if they do. Parents work there because the alternative is watching their children drop out of school and work themselves or starve.

Better Than the Alternatives?

It’s a painful fact that boycotting goods made by sweatshop labor only hurts the workers, not the factory owners. In 1993, a U.S. boycott forced Bangladeshi factories to quit utilizing child labor. According to Oxfam, most of those displaced children were forced into worse positions, including prostitution—when their first choice had been to sew clothing for Wal-Mart shoppers.

Being without better alternatives, the people who have sweatshop jobs are often glad to have them and see them as a positive beginning for a better life. Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for their coverage of China’s Tiananmen Square massacre, recounted multiple stories of Chinese sweatshop workers who were puzzled when Western journalists bemoaned their twelve-hour plus workdays, seven days per week. More than one young woman they interviewed said how great it was that the factory allowed them to work such long hours, and others commented they had taken that job deliberately over others in the area to earn more hourly pay.

Since that interview in 1987, more companies invested in the area and additional factories opened across southern China. Although this workers’ state could still use a few stout labor unions, workers are now more mobile, wages have more than quintupled and conditions have improved as factories compete for the best workers. More people now work for private industry than for the state (although it’s also true that unemployment has risen as a result). Although the yuan’s exchange rate is still controlled by the government, its purchasing power has risen to approximately one-sixteenth that of the U.S. dollar. The rivers of bicycles once common in Chinese cities are being replaced by cars and even SUVs, with gasoline subsidized by the government.

Allowing Developing Countries to Develop

According to an article by Michael Strong in 2006, roughly 1.2 million people rise above poverty in China every month by moving to an urban area and taking a job that pays less than US$2 per day. He claims that Wal-Mart, through allowing developing economies access to industrialized markets, has helped more of the world’s desperately poor than the World Bank and relates the story of a Mongolian student who, when he heard U.S. college students ripping into sweatshops, shouted out, “Please, give us your sweatshops!”

Strong also points out, quite correctly, that a line must be drawn between criminal exploitation and market economics. Workers deserve decent wages and working conditions that won’t kill them, not only in developed nations but also in the backwoods of beyond. But to achieve that requires not fewer sweatshops but more of them, clustered together to create competition for workers in the Chinese pattern.

If China continues growing at its current rate, in 2031 it will reach a standard of living comparable to that in the U.S. It’s the same path taken by Japan in the 1950s and 1960s and the Asian tigers in the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s an ugly path, dirty and brutal. But it’s proven to work. Can the same be said for other forms of foreign aid?

4 comments to Outsourcing: The Good Side of Asian Sweatshops

  • Irish Dave

    American companies operate sweatshops in developing countries for a reason. They are allowed to pollute as much as they wish to because they don’t care if these people drink water with toxic waste in it. They don’t care if the air quality is poor. They don’t care if these children get killed in these sweats shops because there are more children where they came from. They also are looking for cheap labor. And the last thing they really want is for these developing countries to become thriving economies with better standards of living because where are these poor companies going to find people to work for next to nothing? These countries need to step up to the plate and offer better economic advantages to their citizens and say no to sweat shops. The children need to receive quality educations so they don’t repeat the cycle of destitution and poverty. No one with any morals or ethics would ever claim that sweat shops work.

  • Stella

    I think what you fail to realise is that it isn’t that governments don’t *want* to offer their citizens “economic advantages”, and it’s not that they *want* to see their children working in these horrible conditions, but the fact happens to be that in a lot of developing countries things like “quality education” and “air quality” that you bring up so easily are luxuries. People are a great deal more worried about where their next meal is going to come from and whether they and their children have any kind of a future beyond mere survival. I agree that it’s sad that such things happen, but we also have to realise that what “should” be happening is very different from what *is* happening and what governments and authorities in many cases have the ability to do. And I’m not going to say that sweatshop owners are humane, or that they do what they do out of altruism because, obviously, they don’t. Their economic model is based on exploiting people who don’t have access to other forms of employment and I’m willing to admit that. But that’s also, in essence, the point: these people don’t have options. It’s sad and terrible that these sweatshops are the best or only option but it’s also a fact, and given the absence of more favorable forms of employment, what authority do we have as people in the First World, who don’t know that kind of suffering, to declare that sweatshops are unequivocally bad and try to abolish them? What is going to happen to the people currently employed in them? In the absence of state welfare, what else can they turn to? Crime? Prostitution? Or will they simply starve? It’s easy for us to ignore these realities as armchair observers but, for the people working in those places, concerns about how you’re going to feed your children and keep a roof over their heads are real and pressing and they endure the inhumane conditions in sweatshops in order to achieve these things. And there are parents who make the best of the situation and work fourteen hours a day in these places to earn as much money as they possibly can so they can afford to give their children the education they never got. It’s easy to say that it’s terrible and that it can’t go on, but the fact is that the world in general is a sad and terrible and profoundly unequal place and we need to look at *all* of it instead of isolating some small part and trying to make it go away to alleviate our guilt so we can wash our hands of the other painful things in the world that require our attention. There are a great deal more things that should hurt our collective conscience as human beings and which we can do something about. We need to look at all of them and get the big picture before we can begin to right the wrongs of the world.

  • Well said. Policies handed down from on high about how things “should” be have generally done more harm than good in most instances.

  • Alis

    @ Stella: I agree with you completely and @Irish Dave: I definitely feel where you are coming from.
    As I read more and more on the different things that go on in this world, it makes me sick. As a people you would imagine that we all want the best for eachother, but that’s not the case. Just like with these sweatshops, it makes you think should we get used to them being here or should we fight against it. Well, if we do get used to the idea we are basically allowing for millions of children to be robbed of a childhood, women to be exploited in hopes of keeping a job, along with letting a world live off of the blood and tears of those that ached to produce such products. However, if we fight against it, then we have encouraged perverts to exploit women and children alike, families to be forced onto the streets to die and possibly lead to higher crime rates. To me, there unfortunately are no rewards either way, just more tears. I just wonder how is it that we can have education but it has been made difficult for other countries to provide? I know that many people would rather live off of another in order to survive, but I feel that if we all worked as a nation, we could all have better living conditions. Unfortunately, the world thrives on succeeding by “stepping on someone while making it to the top”, so I don’t know if this could ever be achieved. I also agree that in order to right our wrongs we must look at everything that has been infected. But in order to begin the healing process we need to start somewhere right? My question would be, when and where are we finally going to take a stand and work relentlessly to cure the diseases of mankind?

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