There was a time when I regarded my friends in the Amnesty International Society as hypocritical for buying clothes from high street shops like Zara and Primark and simultaneously condemning the existence of what the West brands as ‘sweatshops’. Contradictory may their protestations be, but now I realise my concerns were misdirected completely. One reason for this is that I imbibed the same doctrine about sweatshops at school and from newspapers as most of us do.
No more than a decade ago was my Modern Studies class asked to upturn the bottom of their shirts to reveal in what country they had been produced. When my high-street-labelled blouse read ‘Made in Bangladesh’ I was told by my teacher I should re-think my outlets of choice and boycott those made in certain parts of the world.
In the same lesson we were told of the terrible lives these sweatshop workers were subjected to by Western companies and how their human rights and basic working conditions they are entitled to were being abused. As an eleven year old with a sensitive social conscience I, like my friends, was uneasy to learn this and tried to persuade my Mum to swear to never buy ‘unethical’ clothes ever again.
Now it is conventional wisdom to side with the ever-multiplying articles and campaigns impelling us to support closing down the Wikipedia-defined “factories in the clothing industry where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours and under poor conditions”. But long hours compared to what? And poor conditions by whose standards? People who use this language are coming from relatively privileged perspectives being in the world’s most advanced countries.
The popular idea of trying to get people to close down sweatshops really fails to acknowledge the context. Yet it remains an aim that has captivated and impassioned the minds of the majority of people – often intelligent people – with any interest in the matter.
Last week the Daily Mail depicted the workshops in the typical horror-story fashion. Now of course most people are against being ‘crammed into’ and ‘forced’ to do anything but do we know what the alternative is for these workers or that they have not chosen this route of employment? Have we considered that if we stop buying the clothes that they are earning a living from producing, and indeed go so far as to actively seek to close workshops down, that we may be making people in less-developed countries significantly worse off?
For a start, it is useless and misleading to throw 20p-a-day figures around without knowing or at least considering what the average earnings are in the country and what job stability and working conditions in the country are like for those not employed by globally-renowned manufacturers. Would these multinationals be employing the numbers of people they do, and lifting the number of people they do out of poverty, if it wasn’t cheaper to employ them than it would be in the West? The answer is no.
This article is guilty of not drawing any attention to the places of work of those not making clothes for Western companies. And the fact that we in the West so vehemently hold them accountable most likely makes them the most desirable option to those trying to earn a living.
Sweatshop studies that go beyond simply analysing this kind of anti-sweatshop activity are rare. However, evidence in favour of the opportunities that the so-called ‘squalid’, ‘grim’ sweatshops provide for people in poverty does exist out there, albeit it is almost totally unmentioned.
A 2006 paper by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek and a 2012 paper by David, Emily, Brian and Erin Skarbek look at sweatshop wages compared to local living standards and consider what types of non-monetary benefits sweatshop workers receive compared to their peers’ employments. This sheds light on an important question we should be seeking to answer: what their next-best alternative employment is. The truth seldom acknowledged is that sweatshops provide their workers with an above average standard of living.
If campaigners in the West knew that by inciting intolerance of sweatshops they were closing off opportunities and pushing people into worse alternatives they would probably re-think their actions. People of influence are stoking destruction of an option that we are not replacing with a better alternative. So despite good intentions, efforts to bring an end to the sweatshop are wasted, and ultimately harmful, if what we want to do is improve the lives of third-world workers.