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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