On sweatshops, Romney is right

In the recently-released recording of Mitt Romney talking to donors, the “47 percent” remarks are not all the left is pummeling Romney with: Misinformed beliefs about sweatshops contribute, too.

In a column, Jim Hightower wrote “But that was not the presidential contender’s only comment in the video that seemed to come from some cold, warped, faraway universe. He also babbled on insensibly about how impoverished Third World people love working in sweatshops. … See, in MittWorld, even life in a Chinese sweatshop is beautiful.” This is typical of liberal reaction to Romney’s remarks, and it’s a reaction that’s based on emotion, not reality.

While sweatshops are not the place most Americans would choose to work, they are often the best alternative available to workers in some countries. Pay is low compared to U.S. standards because worker productivity is low, and the process of economic development will lead to increases in productivity and pay. But most policies promoted to help the purported plight of sweatshop workers actually lead to harm.

That was the message of Benjamin Powell. Powell is a professor of economics at Suffolk University in Boston and is affiliated with The Beacon Hill Institute.

In a lecture given in Kansas, Powell said “Often when people say there’s something wrong with sweatshops, implicitly what they’re saying is ‘while this is bad, the alternative must be better.’ Often the alternatives in these countries are much, much worse.” The alternatives are often subsistence agriculture and working in farm fields, Powell said.

A sweatshop, according to Powell, is a workplace with low wages (compared to U.S. standards), and poor, possibly unsafe, working conditions and benefits, again compared to U.S. standards. The sweatshops that Powell is defending are those where people voluntarily choose to work. Sweatshops where workers are forced to work under the threat of violence constitute slave labor, which cannot be defended. These are not better than the alternatives available to the forced workers, the evidence being that the workers are forced to work in these sweatshops.

As evidence of non-sweatshop working conditions is some countries, Powell mentioned the case of a Cambodian girl and her working conditions, as reported by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times in 2004:

Nhep Chanda is a 17-year-old girl who is one of hundreds of Cambodians who toil all day, every day, picking through the dump for plastic bags, metal cans and bits of food. The stench clogs the nostrils, and parts of the dump are burning, producing acrid smoke that blinds the eyes.

The scavengers are chased by swarms of flies and biting insects, their hands are caked with filth, and those who are barefoot cut their feet on glass. Some are small children.

Nhep Chanda averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a garment factory — working only six days a week, inside instead of in the broiling sun, for up to $2 a day — is a dream.

In another column, after describing conditions in the dump, Kristof wrote “Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.”

Generally, sweatshop workers are paid much more than most other workers in the country, and their working conditions are much better. Powell mentioned that working inside — rather than outside — is very desirable in most countries. Sweatshops pay higher wages and have better working conditions than the workers’ alternatives. Otherwise, the workers would choose the alternatives.

Powell reminded the audience that it’s important to remember that in most countries where sweatshops exist, these jobs are much better — both in terms of pay and working conditions — than what the workers face as alternatives. Anything that causes companies to shut down sweatshops or employ fewer workers, then, means that workers lose these better jobs and return to harder work at lower wages, or perhaps no work at all.

I would ask Hightower, the Texas columnist, this: Who is living in cold, warped, faraway universe? Those who want to close down sweatshops and send people back to scavenging garbage dumps?

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