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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sweatshops

Nicholas Kristof defends sweatshops:

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream, by Nicholas Kristof, Commentary, NY Times: Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh. This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping... Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well... But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children. ...

Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous. ...

At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade. ...

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared ... because of sweatshop jobs. ... The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. ...

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”

Ezra Klein:

Nick Kristof's ... point is an uncomfortable one: These children dream of working in sweatshops. Their parents see sweatshops as a glittering ambition, an escape from poverty. ... It's a troubling point: ... Keeping [labor standards] high means fewer children offend our conscience by working in sweatshops and more children spend their days in the stench of the landfills. Lowering them means the American working class loses jobs and the Burmese poor gain them.

    Posted by on Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 09:54 AM in Economics, International Trade, Unemployment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (81)

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