Three Cheers For Sweatshops?

by Juliane Huang Dec 3, 2009

Photo: imgur

The lone voice of a wildly unpopular view, journalist Nicholas Kristof makes his case for supporting sweatshops.

In his New York Times Op-Ed column championing sweatshops in third world countries, Kristof admits he is “just about the only person in America who favors sweatshops.”

Despite suffering the common criticisms of unhealthy conditions, abuses, low wages, etc., sweatshops, Kristof maintains, “are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.”

For many citizens in poverty stricken nations, a factory job is a “cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty,” says Kristof. To take that away is more harmful than helpful. To be a garment worker is far from the worst thing out there.

In order for poor countries to pull themselves out of poverty, they must develop their manufacturing businesses. And if this means constructing sweatshops in third world countries, well, as “bad as sweatshops are, the alternatives are worse.”

Kristof makes strong points about looking at sweatshops through the lens of impoverished third world residents and being realistic about what factory jobs, no matter how low the wages in comparison to US standards, can provide.

Though, as Matador member Kelsey Timmerman points out in his comment on the post, “[Kristof’s] argument ‘sweatshops are good’ is too simple, just as is the one ‘sweatshops are bad.’ ”

While Timmerman agrees that such factory jobs are incredibly important to the workers, he worries that Kristof’s column “encourages apathy” among consumers through it’s bottom line.

Rather than taking a black or white, good or bad side on the sweatshop debate, Timmerman feels that what people should be doing is becoming engaged consumers, asking brands where they manufacture their products and whether or not they have codes of social conduct for their factories.

“In my eyes, if an engaged consumer discovers something they don’t like about a brand they are wearing, they shouldn’t just write off the brand, they should pick up the phone and give them a call or drop them an e-mail. They should express what their concern is and see what, if any, action or response the brand is taking to correct it.”

It’s hard to say whether or not such phone calls or emails would have significant impacts on the way companies do business, but what is for sure, what both Kristof and Timmerman can agree upon, is that a general boycott of companies whose products are made in sweatshops is not the answer as it damages the lives of very workers its trying to help by putting them out of work.

What’s your take on sweatshops? Share your comments with us below.

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