Last Sunday, John Oliver went after overseas sweatshops in a way that only John Oliver can. He touched on child labor and dangerous factory conditions, as well as a handful of companies (among many) guilty of condoning such norms. But beyond calling out a few companies (which he did, among them Gap Inc., H&M, Zara, and Walmart), he also addressed the American mindset of cheaper is better. And he was right to do so.
As much as these corporations are the problem, the general public is no innocent bystander. We, as consumers, help set these policies with our hard-earned money. We keep these companies and their practices alive and thriving by buying the very products that result from them. When we buy their organic tees priced at a mind-boggling $5, we’re validating everything.
With all that said, how much of this sentiment is my own moral preening or, better yet, the moral preening of the West? There is no denying that multinational corporations benefit greatly from cheap and exploited labor, and in a perfect world these conditions wouldn’t exist. But the cliché holds true: we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one of great inequalities, where people make do any way they can. So while we can exclaim in indignation, “NO MORE!” from our lofty couches in our overpriced NYC apartments and feel morally just, the reality on the ground for people working in these factories isn’t so black and white.
Paul Krugman wrote in a piece for Slate years ago, “The lofty moral tone of the opponents of globalization is possible only because they have chosen not to think their position through. While fat-cat capitalists might benefit from globalization, the biggest beneficiaries are, yes, Third World workers.” He was, of course, attacked for his stance, but was he wrong? Poverty isn’t a recent Western invention. It has existed in one form or another long before Adam Smith put forth his ideas to the world. For many families in developing nations across the globe, these jobs, unpleasant as they may be, are the threshold between food on the table and abject poverty.
Overseas production has few, but major, advantages, the primary one being cheap labor. Take that away, and you take away jobs—the very jobs these people rely on. And by doing that, you cripple the export sector, and without a thriving export sector, economic growth stifles. If this had happened in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, as Krugman notes, the two nations would not be where they are now.
So what’s the solution? In many ways, there isn’t one. These countries should, of course, push for the basic welfare of their workers, but they won’t. They’re either too corrupt or too inefficient to do so. At best, we should advocate for safer conditions. Fire extinguishers, proper ventilation, clearly marked exist—these are tangible fixes to some of the problems facing these workers. Beyond that, by advocating ending these jobs, we’re doing far more harm than good.
If this difficult to stomach, then put your money where your mouth is and buy American. It’s easier said than done, of course—American-made goods cost more and they’re harder to come by. Manufacturing locally is no easy feat, either. The infrastructure simply isn’t there, and though there has been an upturn in the last decade, we’re still a long ways away from where we once were. But it’s a step in the right direction.
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