Defending Sweatshops

Nicholas Kristof is a great humanitarian journalist. In his New York Times columns, Kristof exposes third world famine, sex trafficking, genital mutilation, and genocide. He chides readers for championing human dignity in the abstract, but doing little to advance it in the concrete. He shames us by noting our attention to high-profile tragedies while we ignore more routine and systematic disasters. He doesn’t merely report; he promotes Web sites where readers can contribute money, time, or political pressure to combat the suffering and exploitation he has documented.

Mostly, we are well served by Kristof’s method-describe individual victims, note the broader forces to which their tragedies are attributable; and then note how easy it would be to ameliorate the problem if only we cared-for example, by contributing to international aid groups.

Yet on one topic-third world sweatshops-the method leads him astray. He rails against those who seek to improve the wages and working conditions of young women and children who toil in African and Asian sewing factories for interminable hours and meager pay, manufacturing Westerners’ apparel. Kristof’s view is that sweatshops are the best possible alternatives for these women and children. Were it not for such jobs, these laborers might starve in the rural communities from which they were recruited, work as prostitutes, beg on the streets, or pick through garbage. Third world workers want to toil in sweatshops, recognizing that it improves their prospects. It is arrogant (or worse) for Westerners to try to prevent them from exercising their judgment about what is in their own best interests. Campaigns against sweatshops, Kristof writes, “are often counterproductive, harming the very Third World citizens that they are intended to help.”

Kristof brings us the story, for example, of Tratiwoon, a young Indonesian woman who, with her three-year-old son, earns a dollar a day by selling scrap scavenged from a garbage dump in Jakarta. When Kristof asked her about the sweatshops that surround the dump, she “spoke dreamily about how much she would like her son to get a job in one when he is older.” To people like Tratiwoon, Kristof explains, “a sweatshop represents a leap in living standards.”

Kristof assures us that the sweatshop work is only temporary. Every nation has to go through a sweatshop phase on the way to industrialization. We did; they must. If Asian and African factories can only be permitted, without liberals’ interference, to exploit young women and children, someday these workers (or their offspring) will be prosperous.

Sewing plants locate in places like Indonesia, Kristof explains, only because their labor costs are low. Competition is fierce among countries for this industry, and if Western activists succeed in forcing firms to raise wages, limit hours, or reject children as laborers, product...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.