by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

 The argument that sweatshops are good is one made in ignorance.  People who believe this tend I fear to define what happens in the world by means of statistics rather than with a variety of tools which might/should include direct, extended experience not simply of the life of someone working in a sweatshop but of her family and community and the local environment.  The negative effects of sweatshops are almost always greater than the seeming growth in individual income.

Think of families without mothers or fathers available because or the need to relocate, to work twelve, fourteen hour days seven days a week. Think of health impacts over time,  of communities where education gets you nowhere Think of the effects of the sweatshops on the previous local means of making a living.  To know about the impact of sweatshops, you need to know of where the profits from the sweatshops are going. 

You need to value more than income statistics: you need to realize that sometimes an income of 9-11% over the national average, or even double, can still be hardly anything; you need to see human lives as needing community, family, connection, and time to partake in them. You need to see the sweatshops as destroying possibilities for creating local and sustainable economies that are good for more than the sweatshop owners and that don't deceive numbers crunchers. You need to NOT be swayed by the sight of rows of docile workers in what seem to be clean factories.  These are like Pullman villages. We need to stop blinding ourselves to the destruction of lives.

You don't need to convince me that the life of a sweatshop worker is bad. I agree that it's terrible work. But opposing sweatshop labor, when the alternatives are even more bleak, makes the situation worse, not better. Yglesias said it well awhile back:

I think it’s wrong to say that all consideration of international labor standards is merely aimed at keeping people stuck on the trash heap, but it’s a valuable reminder about the generally limited ability of just saying “no” to things to accomplish what people want. Part of the reason sweatshops exist and attract laborers is that life on the garbage heap is even worse, as is the life of a third world subsistence farmer. If you want to improve things, you need to actually be expanding the set of feasible options, not just arbitrarily closing down one path.

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