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’s the message of Benjamin Powell, who spoke to a group of university students and citizens last night in Emporia on the topic “In Praise of Sweatshops.” Powell is a professor of economics at Suffolk University in Boston and is affiliated with The Beacon Hill Institute. His appearance was part of the Emporia State University “Lectures on Liberty” series.
“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.
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. The fact that sweatshops pay higher wages and have better working conditions than the workers’ alternatives is important to remember.
Powell explained the factors that determine how much workers are paid. The upper bound that employers are willing to pay workers is based on the amount of value that a worker can create. In economic terms, this is called the marginal productivity of labor.
The lower bound, the minimum employers can pay, is the value of workers’ next best alternative.
If we want to increase the earnings of sweatshop workers, we have to create policies that raise both the upper and lower bounds, Powell said, adding that about three-fourths of the variation in earnings across countries is explained by the upper bound. This points to the importance of increasing worker productivity.
In one debate, Powell said his opponent wanted to take the question of sweatshop wages off the table, admitting that pay is higher in them. Instead, she wanted to focus on worker health and safety. But it’s important to remember, Powell told the audience, that working conditions, even those related to health and safety, are part of a total compensation package. Wages and working conditions are interconnected and can’t be separated.
Sometimes people ask why apparel companies — the largest users of sweatshops — can’t simply pay the workers more, pointing to large profits and highly paid executives at these companies. But Powell said that apparel companies usually aren’t excessively profitable.
Additionally, businesses are not charities. Forcing them to pay workers more means that companies will begin to look at ways to reduce the amount of labor they use. They may replace workers with machines, or use more productive workers in other countries. The result is sweatshop workers will lose their jobs.
Powell reminded the audience that it’s important to remember that in most countries where sweatshops are used, 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.
In discussing the anti-sweatshop movement, Powell said that some groups sincerely want to help sweatshop workers, but don’t understand the economic realities in sweatshop-using countries. But labor unions such as UNITE do understand economics. The policies they advocate to help sweatshop workers — international labor standards and minimum or “living” wages, for example — increase the cost of sweatshop labor, causing companies to use less of it. It also makes unionized garment workers more attractive, and may lead to more employment in developed countries like the United States.
“So unions advocate this not out of love for third world workers. They do it quite maliciously, actually, to unemploy third world workers for the benefit of already relatively wealthy union members in the United States and Western Europe countries.”
The worst thing that advocates for sweatshop workers can do is to call for boycotts of products produced in sweatshops. If a boycott decreases demand for a product, the company must reduce its price, and the upper bound of what sweatshop workers can earn goes down. Then workers either have their wages reduced, or they lose their jobs.
Powell presented the results of his research examining sweatshop wages. In many countries that use sweatshops, wages are very low, compared to U.S. wages. But that isn’t the appropriate comparison. Instead, when comparing the wages of sweatshop workers to the average income in the workers’ own country, we find that sweatshop workers do very well, often earning from two to seven times as much as the average worker in each country.
Powell said that “ethical branding” is an idea that might help sweatshop workers. This is a marketing strategy where a company uses the fact that products are produced in sweatshops as a way to increase demand and prices. This, in turn, would increase the demand for sweatshop workers and increase their wages. But this has to be a voluntary strategy, Powell said. Companies must see this as a business success. If it is not successful in increasing demand but companies are forced to implement this strategy, it will lead to less sweatshop employment.
Also, demand — in terms of the number of units sold — must not fall. This is a problem with “fair trade” coffee, where people purchase less of the more expensive fair trade coffee.
The real solution for improving sweatshop wages and working conditions, Powell said, is the process of economic development. Sweatshops existed in Great Britain and the United States at one time. As capital is accumulated, better technologies are developed, and workers become more educated, workers become more productive and earn more, both in income and better working conditions.
This process took over a century in the U.S., but countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea, which were sweatshop countries in the 1950s and 1960s, made very rapid improvements in wages and working conditions. Capital and technology is available from abroad, Powell said, and this process can be repeated. But anti-sweatshop policies risk stalling this development, resulting in a permanent sweatshop country with low incomes.
The real question, Powell said, is not why some countries are poor, but why some countries are rich. Rule of law, respect for property rights, and respect for individual liberty and economic freedom are policies that promote rapid economic growth. Countries that do not have these stagnate and do not increase their standard of living.
In conclusion, Powell said that sweatshop wages and working conditions are better than what many workers face as alternatives, and that’s why people voluntarily choose to work in them. While wages are low compared to developed countries, this is because productivity is low. The process of economic development is the way to raise productivity and wages. Much of the work of anti-sweatshop groups risks undermining the economic development processes that will raise living standards.
A question from the audience asked about the proliferation of sweatshops abroad leading to the loss of American jobs. Powell replied that sweatshops lead to the decline of the American apparel industry. But it is in the interest of America, he said, to get garments at lower cost overseas, freeing up high-skilled U.S. labor and capital to do what we’re relatively better at. This increases the wealth of America.
Another question referred to the human costs of sweatshop labor, contrasting those workers to Nike executives who earn millions. What is the cost in terms of damage to human dignity? Powell replied that businesses are not charities, and they don’t pay executives high salaries simply because they want to. The extremely high pay of the top executive serves as an incentive for underlings to work harder in jobs that are hard to observe quality of effort. Most people do not understand this, Powell said.
He also said that if we’re concerned about the dignity of sweatshop workers in third world countries, we should be even more concerned about those who don’t have sweatshop jobs. These people either have no jobs, or jobs with much lower pay and worse working conditions than sweatshop workers.
Another question asked if it would help the economies of third world countries if we simply raised the wages of sweatshop workers, referring to companies that are making millions in profits. Powell said that laws mandating higher wages will change the behavior of sweatshop companies, resulting in a loss of sweatshop jobs. But voluntary programs like ethical branding could work.
Related material on this topic by Powell includes a Christian Science Monitor op-ed Don’t get into a lather over sweatshops, a working paper titled Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?, and an article In Defense of “Sweatshops.”
The ESU Lectures on Liberty was conceived by Greg Schneider, professor of History at Emporia State University, to bring in important academics who support the idea of research and scholarship on critical issues regarding liberty in American history. The lecture series is underwritten by the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation in Wichita.