Nicholas D Kristof attacks conventional wisdom on sweatshops in a New York Times column today, arguing that working in a sweatshop is better than most alternatives for people in developing nations. I don’t agree with companies from rich countries exploiting the poor in other countries in order to increase profits, but at the same time one person’s view of exploitation is another person’s view of opportunity. The main thing that concerns me with sweatshops is not low pay, but rather unsafe working conditions.
It’s often forgotten that the US went through a sweatshop phase during the industrial revolution where we were providers of cheap labor under miserable conditions (and there are still plenty of people working in miserable conditions in the US today, sometimes for less than minimum wage if they’re illegal). That, of course, begat the labor movement and in the end led us to being the world’s greatest industrial power. I don’t know if there’s a shortcut from poverty-stricken agrarian state to modern industrial state, or if that path is inevitable, but I don’t think that pulling business out of the world’s most wretched countries is good for them in the long term. Of course, I’m also of the opinion that “subsistence farmer” is the most rotten job in the world. (Well, maybe shipbreaking is worse.)