, , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Working conditions and wages in the third-world usually look so undesirable to observers in developed countries that we commonly use the term “sweatshops” to describe production facilities serving global markets in developing countries. Those facilities, however, are relatively modern by their domestic standards. The wages and working conditions are far superior to traditional opportunities available to the workers, offering them a rare opportunity to get out of poverty. But it is not uncommon to hear a narrow view that these workers are “exploited”, as if shutting down those operations was a better alternative. Calls for boycotts and other measures to punish firms with ties to those facilities are a common refrain from the Left, but if successful, the real victims of such activists would be the very workers whose interests they claim to represent.

Johan Norberg makes this all too clear in the Huffington Post, in “How Your T-Shirt Saves the World“, citing reports from the World Bank and the International Food Policy Research Institute: 

The number of extremely poor in Bangladesh fell from 44 to 26 million between 2000 and 2010, despite the population growing by 15 million. Since 2004, the level of poverty in Cambodia has more than halved, from 52 to just over 20 percent. It is ‘one of the best performers in poverty reduction worldwide’, according to the World Bank.

This is a stunning success in the countries that need it the most, and the export sector has been instrumental in bringing it about. It increases the workers’ productivity, and therefore also their wages and working conditions, which has been especially important for women. In a study from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the researchers show that the increase in Bangladeshi wages from the garment sector ‘dwarfed’ the rise attributed to government programs. …

Obviously even the best jobs in very poor countries look bad compared to what we are used to in Europe and America, but that is not the alternative in an economy at a low level of capital and education. As a worker I interviewed in Vietnam once put it, the main complaint to management was that she wanted the factories to expand so that her relatives could get the same kinds of jobs.

This is a very basic lesson in the process of economic development, and no one pretends that it’s easy. In this interview of Professor Benjamin Powell of Texas Tech University in The Freeman, he quotes Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller:

The way Penn … put it once when he interviewed me is that ‘it’s better than tilling the soil with Grandpa’s femur.’ That is a bit crass . . . but true. Wishing away reality doesn’t give these workers better alternatives. Workers choose to work in sweatshops because it is their best available option. Sweatshops, however, are better than just the least bad option. They bring with them the proximate causes of economic development (capital, technology, the opportunity to build human capital) that lead to greater productivity—which eventually raises pay, shortens working hours, and improves working conditions.

When you hear anyone talk about “exploitation” of workers in the third world by capitalists, ask them what alternatives they have in mind for lifting those workers out of poverty. Chances are they will pretend that firms can offer pay at levels far exceeding the current productivity of the workers — a prescription for closing the operations. Or they might offer naive suggestions that rely heavily on government as a benefactor, which are unlikely to succeed in ending poverty. They might even advocate for “fair trade”, which is leftist ear-candy code for protectionism. Nothing could be worse for first-world consumers or more harmful to the cause of economic development in the third world. As Norberg says of the so-called “sweatshops”: “The world needs more jobs like these, not fewer.