Jesse Kline: Shutting down sweatshops just throws workers onto the streets
A.M. Ahad/The Associated PressBangladeshi rescuers work at the site of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Friday.
When a mall collapsed in Elliot Lake, Ont., almost a year ago, the conversation turned to how that shopping centre’s owners could have let it fall into a state of such disrepair. There was no discussion of boycotting malls in small towns, or the businessmen who set up shop there.
When a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed on Wednesday, reportedly killing at least 300, authorities in that country also began looking for the owner of the building who, according to a spokesperson for the Bangladeshi Prime Minister, has “vanished into thin air.” The conversation in the West, however, immediately turned to how we should not buy products from backwater countries that are known for using cheap labour.
Joe Fresh, the clothing brand owned by Canadian retail giant Loblaws, was one of the companies that produced some of its products in the factory. Since the accident, the company has been taking a beating in the media, and the anger expressed on itsFacebook page is palpable.
“Stop using these facilites [sic] PERIOD!” wrote Karen Capricci. “These people were working 13.5 hours a day, seven days a week for a maximum of 26 cent per hour. SHAME ON YOU FOR USING SUCH FACILITES [sic] !!!!” Others are calling for people to start buying products made closer to home. “NO one should buy Joe Fresh- it is completely unaffordable in the only terms that matter- human terms. shame, shame shame!” wrote Glynis Ross.
“Jacob and Le Chateau have started pulling at least some production back to Canada, proudly selling garments with the Made in Canada label so there is no reason other than greed why you can’t too,” wrote Rebecca Harrison-White. Tina Squire of London, Ont., agrees: “if you really cared…you would have your clothing made in Canada or USA or the European nation.”
Most of these people surely have their hearts in the right place. But boycotting companies that use sweatshops will leave workers in Third World countries in a worse situation than they find themselves in now.
It is important to remember that, despite the fact that sweatshops often have deplorable working conditions and pay minuscule wages by Western standards, we are not talking about slavery. People who work in these factories do so by their own accord. By freely accepting a job at a sweatshop, the employee is demonstrating that her relationship with her employer is mutually beneficial, and that she thinks taking the job is a better option than all the others available to her.
What happened in Bangladesh is a tragedy, and we should all hope working conditions in the developing world improve (which they will, just like they did here). But the real issue is substandard building codes and shoddy engineering.
When people take jobs at sweatshops, the alternative is often starvation, which is why studies have found that workers are unwilling to give up any pay for better conditions. Many of these factories also pay higher wages than other positions available in the local job market.
A 1996 study published in the Journal of International Economics found that wages paid by multinational corporations in developing countries were significantly higher than those paid by local firms. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Labor Researchfound that even when multinationals contract services to domestic contractors, the wages are still three to seven times higher than the rates paid elsewhere in the economy.
Bangladesh — a country with a per-capita GDP of $2,000, making it one of the poorestin the world — has been in a similar situation before. Faced with the threat of the U.S. and other Western nations banning imports from the country in the early 1990s, factories in Bangladesh fired 30,000 child workers. According to the British charity Oxfam, these kids didn’t go back to school or find better lives. Most of them took worse jobs or ended up on the streets. Thousands of children went into prostitution.
People who think we should boycott goods from developing countries such as Bangladesh should be aware of the consequences: The very workers people are concerned about will be left worse off without their current jobs. Shutting down sweatshops does not free these people to pursue better work elsewhere. It throws them out onto the streets.
The heinous working conditions in many parts of the world is certainly a problem. But so is poverty. Sweatshops may not lift people out of poverty, but they help them survive. And that’s more than most idealistic people in this part of the world can say.