A rock and a hard place

In the continual debate over sweatshops comes an editorial from the NY Times entitled In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop. Nicholas Kristof argues that sweatshops are a step up.

Mr. Shaanika and the other young men noted that the construction jobs were dangerous and arduous, and that they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops. Sure, sweatshop work is tedious, grueling and sometimes dangerous. But over all, sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous – or sweaty – than most alternatives in poor countries.

A similar sentiment is often voiced by aid workers. Is a 16 year old mother, a mother who needs to support her children or is she a child herself? These questions defy ready solutions. Still, I don’t cotton to Kristoff who says in part:

The problem is that it’s still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn’t a prime obstacle, but it’s one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.

Kristoff’s call to capital investment to provide the solutions of endemic infrastructure problems of foreign nations could be seen as overtly self-serving -that is, if it weren’t so risky. Luckily -in this case- capital is a coward. I just have a problem with the mindset that on one hand, manufacturing is perceived as a brotherhood of bad guys, yet on the other hand, we’re called to be responsible for the resolution of the development problems of the world. People are deluding themselves if they think manufacturers can be both. Even here in the US, if you tell somebody you own a sewing factory, their first thought is that you’re an exploitative abusive person. Who wants to sign up for that?

Regardless of my established opinions and even if you took money out of the equation, it’s just too hard to exercise production oversight abroad, especially for small companies. If people have problems doing it in their own back yards, it’s even harder abroad. Personally, ethical and humane considerations aside, I just don’t find it tenable for a small manufacturer.

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