nicholas-kristofNicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece in the January 14, 2009 New York Times titled, “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream” has inspired a flurry of disagreeing letters and comments from the public. In case you missed it, Kristof argues that sweatshops provide a great opportunity for those in extreme poverty and that the jobs in sweatshops are far better than rag-picking in a toxic landfill all day. Therefore, his logic extends, more sweatshops should be created. I’ll give him that there are worse things in this world than sweatshops, like being machine-gunned or maybe forced into prostitution. While this might make sweatshops a better alternative, it is certainly no solution, nor is it even a good or just alternative, especially when we have the means to do better.

Instead of arguing the many points raised in his piece, I’ll re-post below some of the thoughtful reactions from others. All responses below are selected excerpts from the letters to the editor and comments posted on the New York Times website.

  • -Nicholas D. Kristof is absolutely right. Sweatshops are much better than a sharp stick in the eye. But when jobs aren’t a pathway out of poverty, they create an asymmetric, unsustainable global economy of producer countries and consumer countries that can stand on its head only so long.
  • sweatshop2-He [Kristof] misses the point: Cambodian garment shops are among the best in Asia because of a deal done with the United States in a trade treaty signed in 1999. In return for access to the American market, Cambodia agreed to abide by core labor standards, including the right to form a union and to bargain collectively. As result, the industry grew rapidly and so have unions in Cambodia.
  • -Nicholas D. Kristof seems not to understand that the No. 1 reason for imposing higher labor standards on imports isn’t to improve living standards abroad but to maintain them here. Americans shouldn’t be asked to compete with workers who think that toiling long hours under abysmal conditions is still better than living in the dump.
  • -As I get older, I think of the options you pose as a choice between different levels of Hell. Is this the best we can do in 2009? Is this to be considered progress and the fruits of modernity?
  • garbage-dump-And by the way, the situation of the garbage pickers in Steung Meanchey is a bit more complex than depicted in the article. It’s related to the difficulties of making a living in the countryside, to land seizures, to government corruption, to monopolization of natural resources by a small circle of elites, to lack of democracy, to post-conflict issues involving displacement and resettlement. In other words, international forces can and should play a much more positive than they do now but many domestic changes need to occur in order for the garbage pickers of Steung Meanchey to disappear.
  • -Sweatshops do not advance the next generation. It is people’s desire to create a better life for their children that motivates an individual to work hard and make that happen, in spite of the sweatshop mentality. I wonder if those people losing jobs here in the US will accept or work hard at a professional job for half pay of what they formally were paid – and to tell them there are many who will take your place if your don’t is not a justification for such treatment. Poverty creates social unrest. You are clearly well educated, please revisit your national and personal history.
  • sweatshop1-Perhaps some working conditions are better than others, but that still doesn’t make them right. How much more effort would it take to make the work place safe, hours tolerable and child labor controlled? It sort of feels like listening to the argument that waterboarding isn’t torture because it doesn’t leave permanent scars. Sweatshops are sweatshops and we who buy their products need to be mindful of the conditions the workers are being forced to endure.
  • -Carried to its logical end, we would all be working in sweatshops eventually, because what you advocate is nothing more than a race to the bottom. More factories – yes! But with internationally accepted standards, or they will bring us all down to a debased level.
  • -Whenever I’ve read your pieces on sweatshops, I’ve always wondered: how did a nice guy like you get stuck in such an argument? I’ll try to be brief: You are right that sweatshops are really a symptom of poverty (or to be more precise, capitalists taking advantage of poverty). But so is prostitution. Where does that fit in your hierarchy of jobs? How about slavery? Might that not be considered better than scavenging in a dump as well?

It is great that Kristof’s work has brought forth lively reactions on such an important matter. I’m very happy that he exists… in the op-ed world and not in the ‘deciding’ world. You can view his column and continue to follow the discussion HERE.