This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Anti-sweatshop campaign is bum logic?

This Magazine Staff

“I know it sounds strange to say, but if we care about the poor, shouldn’t we actually be campaigning for sweatshops?”
– New York Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof in Cambodia
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
In Kristof’s video, “A Dirty Job: Making the Case for Sweatshops
the former managing editor for The Times is worried that if Obama is going to make a change for better working conditions, labor standards, and trade agreements for the poor in factories in the South that…
a) It will reduce jobs in Cambdodia?
b) He won’t be able to get a new tie for under $50?
c) Factories will close because they can’t be competitive unless they underpay and mistreat their workers?

He says “the anti-sweatshop logic is very well-meaning, and utterly misguided.” He also states the only alternatives to sweat shops in the world’s most impoverished countries are “construction, prostitution, or scavenging.”
Although my instinct is to totally shut down Kristof’s argument (his narrow perspective does not take into account a larger picture), I do think it is true that in order to be responsible citizens, maybe we need to do a little of the hard work of research for ourselves.
Are travel mugs really better than styrofoam or paper cups? Is buying a T-shirt made in Cambodia always a bad idea? Is buying a “fair-trade” T-shirt from American Apparel always a good one? We really can not be looking for any quick-fix answers.
Often part of the secret to finding the answer seems to be in doing the hard work of checking out case-by-case instances, or reading up on the work of those who have. An aid-worker friend who worked in Bangladesh, for example, told me that it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations about factories – one H&M T-shirt factory in Bangladesh seemed to have everything going for it (childcare, good working conditions, education), but that doesn’t mean that the H&M jean factory in (insert country here) offers the same deal.
I think it’s also important to point out that we need to support labor rights activists and workers in places where they are locally fighting for better working standards, as well as supporting well-researched campaigns that are making a positive difference.
Kristof’s final thought on sweatshops? “I sure wouldn’t want to work in one.”
more comments on this article here.

Show Comments