Monday, June 05, 2006

In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop

By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times

Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops.

Oops, don't spill your coffee. We in the West mostly despise sweatshops as exploiters of the poor, while the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities.

On a street here in the capital of Namibia, in the southwestern corner of Africa, I spoke to a group of young men who were trying to get hired as day laborers on construction sites.

"I come here every day," said Naftal Shaanika, a 20-year-old. "I actually find work only about once a week."

Mr. Shaanika and the other young men noted that the construction jobs were dangerous and arduous, and that they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops. Sure, sweatshop work is tedious, grueling and sometimes dangerous. But over all, sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous — or sweaty — than most alternatives in poor countries.

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.

Namibia was supposed to be a pioneer in Africa's garment industry, for it is stable, pleasant and safe, and its government has tried hard to entice foreign investors. On the edge of Windhoek are a series of low factories set up to produce garments for the American marketplace.

The biggest is the Ramatex Textile Factory, a Malaysian investment that employs 6,000 people. But the owners say they are losing money and will pull out, and other factories have stopped operating as well.

In Windhoek's Chinatown, I met Sun Zhimei, a Chinese woman who operates a small factory employing Namibians. "I'd like to help this country, by boosting its garment industry," she said. But on the day I visited, her factory was deserted. "It's cheaper to import goods all the way from China than to make them here," she complained.

The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.

Imagine that a Nike vice president proposed manufacturing cheap T-shirts in Ethiopia: "Look, boss, it would be tough to operate there, but a factory would be a godsend to one of the poorest countries in the world. And if we kept a tight eye on costs and paid 25 cents an hour, we might be able to make a go of it."

The boss would reply: "You're crazy! We'd be boycotted on every campus in the country."

So companies like Nike, itself once a target of sweatshop critics, tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. And the real losers are the world's poorest people.

Some of those who campaign against sweatshops respond to my arguments by noting that they aren't against factories in Africa, but only demand a "living wage" in them. After all, if labor costs amount to only $1 per shirt, then doubling wages would barely make a difference in the final cost.

One problem — as the closure of the Namibian factories suggests — is that it already isn't profitable to pay respectable salaries, and so any pressure to raise them becomes one more reason to avoid Africa altogether. Moreover, when Western companies do pay above-market wages, in places like Cambodia, local managers extort huge bribes in exchange for jobs. So the workers themselves don't get the benefit.

One of the best U.S. initiatives in Africa has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows duty-free imports from Africa — and thus has stimulated manufacturing there. But last year, partly because of competition from China, textile and clothing imports under the initiative fell by 12 percent.

The Congo Republic's president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, told me that he would love to have more factories. It's incredibly frustrating, he noted, to see African countries export cotton, timber and other raw materials but rarely have the chance to process them. The American initiative "is a step in the right direction," he said. "But it needs more of a push."

One push needs to come from African countries themselves: a crackdown on corruption and red tape. But another useful step would be for American students to stop trying to ban sweatshops, and instead campaign to bring them to the most desperately poor countries.

Photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)

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Elana said...

Talk about two option tunnel vision. Wearing blinders he pretends their are two options:
1. close sweatshops in Africa and have no jobs
2. keep sweatshops open

At no point does he say “hey lets open factories AND require workplace rights and no bribery is enforced”.

This is what happens when you don't look for solutions and only buy two bad options. Hegemony fest is no fun.

The Unknown Candidate said...

In all due respect, Kristof's column does not attempt to present the problem as simplistically as you suggest. I believe he is trying to point out the complexities of the issue. For example, to the people involved, a sweatshop job may be preferable to no job at all. It may be their only way to survive. So closing the sweatshops and thereby depriving people of their only means of survival--hardly solves their problem--much less improves the situation.

Kristof takes a realistic vs. idealistic view, true. But only when one understands the reality of the problem can one begin to solve it.

Elana, I'd be interested to hear your solutions. I appreciate your comments.


Elana said...

I hope our labor policy fellow has a chance to tackle it on our blog. ANd while you are right that his argument is not as simplistic, the very idea that a choice must be between sweatshops or no jobs at all is such tunnel-vision without the acknowledgment of it. There are always other options, like making sure that bribery doesn't become the way jobs are metted out.

Why can't an international company oversee its hiring practices enough to avoid the pitfalls Kristof lists? He is letting them play incompetent. No, they are not incompetent, just too lazy to do what is necessary to create a better situation.

Additionaly he reduces the arguments made by Students Against Sweatshops to a steriotype.

Too often people swalow the suggestion that there are two bad choices and that is all. Sorry, thats a cop-out. The Times should have higher expectations from their writers.

elana said...

Oh and I will add that the point of the sweatshop campaigns wasn't to get rid of factories in Africa. It was to end sweatshops, not factories. Who decided that all factories were to be sweatshops? You would agree TUC that factories needn't be sweatshops, right?

The Unknown Candidate said...

Points taken. Generally speaking, we are in agreement about sweatshops. I guess I am giving Kristof more credit than perhaps he is due (based on the reading of this one op ed.) I would bet that he would agree with your comments.

I'm not sure your solution deals realistically with the economic problems of the situation. The factories are losing money already; they can't increase wages and better conditions until they can compete internationally at a profit. Otherwise, they will be forced to close and there will be no jobs at all.

Why not respond to Kristof's op ed on his blog and see how he responds to your comments? (He does respond, which is great.)

As for the Times, I also agree they should hold their writers to higher standards. Kristof, however, has often been a lone voice fighting against social injustices; he is one of the few continually reminding us of the genocide in Sudan and human trafficking, for example. While I don't always agree with him one hundred percent, I applaud the fact that he writes about issues that are often overlooked by other journalists. I also believe Kristof's heart is in the right place.

I don't believe that is true of other Times op ed columnists including David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, and John Tierney who more often than not serve as Bush propagandists.

I do hope you'll comment on Krisof's blog; please let me know if you do.
Thanks once again, Elana, for your comments.

elana said...

Here's the post from DMI's labor policy fellow Adrianne Shropshire.

good suggestion on the Kristof blog - will try.

The Unknown Candidate said...

Thanks, Elana. I added a link to Adrianne's post at the end of Kristof's article.

Anonymous said...

I whole-heartedly agree with Nick on this one, but I do agree with most of your points, Elana. However, unfortunately sometimes demanding "workplace rights," means another reason to avoid setting up factories/sweatshops in Africa.

Why not let the poor decide for themselves if it is worth it to them to work there? Let’s trust them to choose and not patronize. It comes down to two choices for some poor Africans: hard work at low (low for American anyway) wages or starvation? I’ve lived in Africa for 4 years and I find it offensive when Americans pity those “poor people who have to work for $0.50 an hour at a sweatshop.” I pity the ones who don’t get to work, and their families.