Kristof: The ‘Central Challenge’ In Poor Countries Is That Sweatshops ‘Don’t Exploit Enough’

Our guest blogger is Sabina Dewan, Associate Director for International Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

sweatshopii.jpgIn an Op-Ed in the New York Times yesterday, Nicholas Kristof condoned labor exploitation in the form of sweatshops as a route out of poverty:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. 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 notion that taking advantage of a person’s desperation for economic gain is somehow morally defensible is preposterous. There is no doubt that much remains to be done to alleviate global poverty, but in case Kristof is not aware, there are many alternative strategies that can help with this cause. The International Labor Organization’s Decent Work Agenda — which focuses on the creation of decent employment, alongside social dialogue, social protection and fundamental principles and rights at work — is but one example.

The observation that those working in factories are “better-off” as compared to those in the informal sector, undertaking menial jobs simply to survive, is well taken. But, those favoring labor standards in trade agreements reflect a much more nuanced understanding of the real problem than Kristof does.

First, they do not mistake the call for improved labor standards to be a poverty reduction strategy. Second, they understand that the higher production costs associated with better labor standards can be offset by the concomitant rises in productivity and economic performance. As the ILO noted:

Higher wage and working time standards and respect for equality can translate into better and more satisfied workers and lower turnover of staff…Safety standards can reduce costly accidents and health care fees….Freedom of association and collective bargaining can lead to better labour-management consultation and cooperation, thereby reducing the number of costly labour conflicts and enhancing social stability.

Better labor standards also help level the playing field for producers internationally, and they increase the size of potential export markets for the U.S. Finally, the inclusion of labor standards in trade agreements must be supported by additional progressive institutions such as universal education, healthcare and other social safety nets to ensure better distribution of the gains from trade.

So I would like say to 13 year old Neuo Chanthou — whose heartbreaking story Kristof used to argue his point — that rather than aspiring to work in a sweatshop, she should be in school, and when she gets home, her healthy mother and father will be able to provide for her and her disabled sister from their ‘living wage’ earned at a ‘decent job’.