climateadaptation asked: have a look at the video (and accompanying story) by kristof: "On the Ground : with Nicholas D. Kristof - A Dirty Job." would your argument hold up if you were facing the people in the video? how do you know?
This question came in response to my post about sweatshops from a couple weeks ago.
Here is the video in question:
It’s powerful and it highlights the well-known fact that some jobs are even worse than sweatshops. Indeed, in all of my posts about sweatshops and labor standards, I’ve always conceded this point. But I’ll write it again just to be clear: The vast majority of sweatshop workers are happy for their sweatshop jobs, despite conditions that would make me miserable, in no small part because the alternatives are far worse.
I’m not arguing that there aren’t worse jobs than sweatshops. It’s very clear to me that it’s worse to pick through garbage all day than to sew buttons on clothes all day. And, to answer the specific question above, I know the people who are scavenging at the garbage dump in this video know it too. They’d be thrilled to have a sweatshop job because the conditions are better and the pay is better. But I think I could still very easily explain to these people that I’d like a system where they don’t have to scavenge in a dump or work in a sweatshop (even though the sweatshop is much better in their eyes).
That said, Kristof raises some important points in his accompanying op-ed:
I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.
Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.
I maintain that the bribery problem is fixable, even as I recognize that it requires serious commitment to do so. I think it’s also possible to fix the problem of rising production costs that lead to factory closures, as I argued in my original post. If higher production costs due to better labor conditions become part of the cost of doing business anywhere in the world, then there’s no incentive to close a factory in Cambodia and open one in a country where standards are lower.
More challenging is Kristof’s point about capital- and labor-intensive factories. What he’s suggesting here is that any improvement in workplace conditions leads to a loss of jobs, as companies will find ways to massively alter the way they produce goods rather than spend any more money on labor. It’s incredibly costly to make this sort of switch, but apparently it’s a better long-term investment than treating workers a little bit better would be.
Now, this is almost certainly true if we’re talking about instituting reforms that call for six weeks of paid vacation and a $35 minimum wage for workers. But, of course, those aren’t the sorts of reforms I’m talking about. I’m talking about workplace conditions that don’t violate basic human rights. Kristof’s answer, such as it is, is to say that “one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries.”
Still, I presume that the sort of manufacturing industry that Kristof wants to build won’t leave behind the people who are scavenging at the garbage dump because it’ll be the sort of labor-intensive manufacturing industry that thrives as a result of poor working conditions (that are, of course, far better than scavenging). If it was capital-intensive manufacturing, after all, it wouldn’t do much for the scavengers’ job prospects. But the jobs would likely need to be sweatshops for Kristof’s argument to work because otherwise these labor-intensive jobs would be created and then immediately lost in favor of capital-intensive manufacturing elsewhere.
What Kristof doesn’t explain — indeed, what no one seems to be able to explain — is why labor-intensive manufacturing can’t be profitable while still treating workers a bit better than they are treated in sweatshops (which, again, is still far better than they would be treated if those jobs didn’t exist at all). The reason this can’t be explained, I maintain, is that it’s actually possible for corporations to make a tidy profit while still respecting the basic human rights of workers.