The word ‘sweatshop’ is often laden with emotion, evoking images of children and women slaving over machines in a congested factory, air heavy with oppression and an unspoken resentment. Public outcries and protests against corporations whose products are produced in sweatshops are commonly reported in the press. The activist community is clear on their stance regarding the sweatshop issue, but economists are often divided into two camps – the pro-sweatshop movement vs. the anti-sweatshop groups.
The pro-sweatshop movement often cites econometric studies conducted in the early ‘90s. These studies show that, controlling for other factors such as inflation, multinational firms offer higher wages than domestic companies in developing countries. It has been shown that on average, in 9 out of 10 nations, an apparel worker’s income exceeds the national average at 50 hours per week. Additionally, apparel workers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua earn 3 to 7 times the national average working 50 hours a week. Often, multinational firms improve the unemployment situation in developing countries by increasing the demand for labor. By compelling these factories to increase their wages and improve what is perceived to be inhumane working conditions, most multinational firms would prefer to shift production to other countries with cheaper labor, withdrawing significant levels of investment and creating unemployment.
That is not to say anti-sweatshop movements do not also have valid points. Anti-sweatshop groups can help compel factories to improve safety standards. An investigation launched after a spree of suicides at Foxconn, Apple’s main manufacturer, revealed that factory workers were forced to use n-hexane, a neurotoxin, to clean iPhone screens. N-hexane evaporates much faster than rubbing alcohol, which speeds up the production line. An investigator who visited the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen reported that during his meeting with factory workers that those who had been exposed to n-hexane were unable to even pick up a glass. Apple has since audited all involved production facilities, ensuring n-hexane will not be used in production.
Many economists believe the issue boils down to simple economics – supply and demand. After all, it is true that if there are no workers who are willing to work at a dollar a day, factories will have to raise wages to attract potential employees. Since entire factories remain staffed, the question is if there are more attractive jobs available.
The only logical thing to do? Ask these ‘victims’ if they feel underpaid and ill-treated. In Nicaragua, Candida Rosa Lopez, “wishes more people would buy the clothes they make.” In Phnom Penh, Pim Srey Rath, who scavenges for a living, wistfully yearns for a job in a factory, since it would mean she could “work in the shade, instead of outside where it’s hot.” Despite the negative press surrounding Foxconn in recent years, Chinese workers, even those armed with a college degree, are lining up outside job agencies demanding jobs at the company. This yearning to work in a factory despite testimonies of workers who suffer physical abuse at the hands of their supervisors, limited bathroom breaks and terrible working conditions seems unthinkable. A Foxconn employee who was pushed to his limit by the harsh working conditions and took his own life, blogged that his death would be proof that “while [they] lived, [they] only had despair.”
Yet, even in America, the debate hits close to home. With unemployment hitting record highs, the struggle to cut costs and be competitive has resulted in ill working conditions, as evidenced in Amazon’s recent scandal.
This phenomenon is once again symbolic of the divide between developed and developing countries. Many Americans would be horrified at the idea of working at wages less than $1 an hour for 12 hours a day. It is easy, however, to forget that the notion of sweatshops was first developed in the United States and Western Europe, the most developed regions in the world. Many developed countries were built on the backs of sweatshops. Hence, for many in developing countries, the opportunity to be a factory worker is one many hope their children will be able to attain. Sweatshops to some people are promises of a better life, hard as it is to imagine.