Sunday, January 05, 2003

A few years ago, Michael Jordan found out that there is such a thing as bad publicity, when activist groups did a little math and found out that he was getting more from Nike, via his endorsement deal, than all the workers in their third-world shoe plants put together. Nike faced this among other sins, including violation of the minimum-wage and labor laws of the countries in which the factories were located, putting children to work under sweatshop conditions, and beatings of the workers.

It was obvious from just looking at the numbers that Nike could easily have afforded to pay much more for their labor, by any meaningful measure; even without the comparison to Jordan's salary, there was the raw fact that total labor costs for a $70.00 shoe were estimated at about $2.75. They eventually quieted the noise with an agreement to improve conditions in the plants, though they've since been criticized for not living up to their promises.

But proponents of globalization don't usually dispute that conditions in third-world facilities operated by (or on the behalf of) American multinationals are really bad. They argue instead that things would be even worse for the workers without it. You can find this argument extended for entire chapters in books like "Thunder from the East", by New York Times writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, from which I'll quote a sample to give the flavor. Here, on p. 128, he's interviewing a garbage picker, one of thousands working a dump covering hundreds of acres outside of Jakarta:

I approached one woman who looked to be in her early twenties and was accompanied by a three-year-old boy who trotted and wobbled at her heelds. The woman's name was Tratiwoon, and she paused to explain her work. ... [S]he carried a reed basket in which she put dirty rags, old magazines, and anything else that could be sold to recyclers. She and her son, who wore only a pair of shorts, were both baefoot, and I wondered how they avoided cuts and infections as they marched around that muck with it sbroken glass and old wires. Then I quickly realized that they did not avoid them, for I saw sores and scares on both their feet. ...

"I live right over there [Tratiwoon said], on the edge of the dump. Most of us live just outside, although a few people live right in the middle of the dump." ...

Tratiwoon estimated that she earns a bit more than $1 a day .... When I asked her about the sweatshops that I had noticed earlier in the neighborhood around the dump, she beamed and spoke dreamily about how much she would like her son to get a job in one when he is older. But she worried that such a job might be too exalted for him. "He's not going to get an education, so I just don't know whether he can get a job like that."

It was plain that Tratiwoon regarded the worst of sweatshop jobs as far loftier than her own work, and she was right. Even if her son gets only a twenty-five-cents-an-hour job in a hellish little factory with dangerous fumes, he will sweat less and be healthier than if he stays on at the dump. ...

This then, is the argument of uncritical free trade advocates: yeah, the workers are working sweatshop hours in dangerous conditions for next to no pay, but hey, it beats picking trash directly out of a poisonous dump for even less. And they acknowledge that the companies could pay more, or work their workers less. But even merely doubling their salaries, raising prices by an amount that consumers would hardly notice, would violate the discipline of the marketplace, the great oracle which tells us how things should be in this, the best of all Pareto-optimal worlds.

So, they say, as bad as conditions for the workers may appear, the system is saving them from even worse. But similar arguments were, advanced for other economic regimes which we wouldn't want to go back to, like sweatshops and dangerous unregulated mines in America at the turn of the last century, or Southern chattel slavery before that.

But beyond the false inevitability of sweatshop conditions in factories, there's another sense in which the choice between sweatshops and garbage dumps is often a false dichotomy; it ignores other options for the workers which globalization has closed off. From Mexico to Nigeria, for example, cities are getting choked with small-scale farmers who have been dispossessed off their land by "structural adjustment" or other forms of globalization. I don't want to overly romanticize the lives of these farmers; they face hard, back-breaking work in uncertain conditions. It's not a life I would envy or choose. But it's certainly better than trash-picking, and at least comparable to twelve to sixteen hours a day in a dangerous sweatshop.

Which is not to say that the anti-globalization crowd is right about everything they say, of course. Kristof makes a good point when he notes that naive anti-sweatshop activity often results in the mechanization of the plants, which eliminates jobs and sends the workers back to the trash dumps. But the veneer of hard-nosed analysis which globalization advocates present hides some stunningly naive analysis of their own...

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