Westchester Community College
December 4, 2012
When discussing the anti-sweatshop movement, people seem to feel as though much more should be done to shut down sweatshops or to help workers gain higher wages and have better work conditions. Most economists, however, feel as though shutting down of sweatshops or raising wages and work conditions would hurt these third world economies. According to Benjamin Powell and David Sarbek’s report, Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?, “Most economists view so-called sweatshops as a benefit to the third world and recognize that the anti-sweatshop activists’ activities could reduce third world employment and investment, thus making workers worse off. “ Most sweatshop workers are being paid more than their national average income. The alternatives to working in a sweatshop would place them far worse off. Many times you hear the comparison to American standard of living when discussing these conditions. Unfortunately, the standard of living and the average income in these third world countries is miniscule compared to America’s.
Most of us have a mental picture of what a sweatshop is, probably a big room crammed with sweating harassed workers in a relatively miserable and abusive environment. How did they come into existence? They didn't start with the recent proliferation of sneaker and clothing factories in Asia. Sweatshops began long before that when third-world people living in poverty came out of garbage dumps where they had been attempting to find some shred of useful material, out of poorly producing fields where they had been attempting to produce some meager food for subsistence, out of prostitution, starvation and unemployment and took what to them surely appeared to be steps in a better direction. They banded together in a cramped home and found employment supplying their labor to employers who, although may have been taking advantage of them, did provide something they were looking for and needed.
While anti-sweatshop activists shed tears over sweatshop wages, one can’t help but ask, why has this gone on for so long if there is a truly negative effect? The garment industry seems to be in the spotlight the most about unfair wages. What the media fails to report is that the garment industry is actually one of the better paying industries in some of these third world countries. Some of these clothing companies also provide non-monetary compensation. “Nike’s employees in Indonesia, for example, receive free health care and meals in addition to their wages.” (Benjamin Powell & David Sarbek, Sweatshops and World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?, p. 13) In Americans’ eyes, getting paid $3.10 a day is unfathomable, although it is actually almost twice what some workers make in Honduras. At ten hours per day, which is not uncommon in a sweatshop, a worker would earn $3.10. Yet nearly a quarter of Hondurans earn less than one dollar per day and nearly half earn less than two dollars per day. (Benjamin Powell In Defense of “Sweatshops”) In his article, Powell discusses the beginnings of the media focus on sweatshops. In 1996, Kathie Lee Gifford met a fifteen year old, Wendy Diaz, who worked in one of her Honduran sweatshops. When she found out that this fifteen-year-old girl was actually a worker in one of her factories, getting paid $3.10 a day, Kathie Lee promised higher wages. Kathie Lee has since become a face and voice for the Anti-Sweatshop Movement.
What many activists fail to remember is the conversion rate. While a garment worker’s daily wage here may not be enough to purchase a tank of gas, it surely would be more than enough to survive on in Honduras.
Many times in the past twenty years, Americans felt they should boycott companies who employ sweatshop workers. Activists start these boycotts in hopes...