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
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
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.
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...