Sweatshop opponents morally wrong

I am saddened — but not surprised — that The Minnesota Daily editorial board has swallowed the propaganda of the anti-sweatshop movement. The Daily says that the union-backed Workers’ Rights Consortium will better serve the “world’s exploited workers” than the White House-sponsored Fair Labor Association.
But if that is true, why is the fraternal helping hand of U.S. unions spurned by workers in developing countries? Professor Linda Lim of the University of Michigan says that “American unions, once appreciated for their assistance to fledgling local labor movements, are now seen as ‘self-interested,’ ‘hypocritical,’ and even ‘imperialistic’ in targeting supposed labor rights violations only in developing countries that have become major exporters of manufactures to the U.S. market.”
The dirty secret of the anti-sweatshop movement is that its real agenda isn’t protecting the job rights of workers in developing countries — its real agenda is protecting the dues-paying jobs of American workers. That is why the union members walked out of President Clinton’s apparel industry partnership, the precursor to the FLA, when its prototype code of conduct failed to require that contractors pay a “living wage.”
There is no agreement on what a living wage is. Consequently, no matter what wages American corporations pay, they will be second-guessed by sweatshop activists. That is the attraction of the living wage for the activists: It opens up endless opportunities for harassing corporations. If the resulting higher labor costs, not to mention the prospect of more negative publicity, deter American corporations from outsourcing from countries like Indonesia and Vietnam, then the real losers will be desperately poor workers in developing countries for whom “sweatshops” mean a ticket out of abject poverty.
The Daily says that the FLA’s independence is compromised because of its ties to corporations. But then why isn’t the WRC’s independence compromised by its ties to labor unions? The conflict of interest could not be more glaring.
It is possible to sift the facts from the propaganda. President Yudof has appointed a task force that will make recommendations regarding whether the University should join the FLA. I hope it won’t follow the Daily and make its recommendations on the basis of what’s politically correct rather than on the facts. Accordingly, I would like to present some of my findings about the labor practices — especially wages — at the corporation that has become the poster boy of the anti-sweatshop movement: Nike.
Nike indirectly employs some 500,000 workers. The company doesn’t do any of its own manufacturing. It contracts with suppliers, mostly Korean and Taiwanese companies, who produce its footwear and apparel at plants in developing countries, principally Indonesia, Vietnam and China.
Sweatshop activists charge Nike with paying its workers less than a living wage. One watchdog group, Vietnam Labor Watch, recently claimed that young women working at one Nike contract plant told it that “they cannot live on the basic factory wage.” It said that almost all the workers it interviewed had lost weight since working there. Yet one of the harshest critics of sweatshops, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, acknowledges that “Nike and Reebok contractors pay at least the prevailing minimum wage and workers often make more, with their jobs sometimes paying above that of local factories or in some cases professionals, like teachers.”
News reports back up the claim: young women at a Nike plant in Serang, Indonesia, were “among higher-paid Indonesians,” according to a 1996 report in the Washington Post. The workers were paid the country’s minimum wage, while less than half of Indonesia’s working population is as lucky. Nike plants in China were “paying decent wages by local standards” (Time). The pay at a Nike factory in China was “relatively decent” (Washington Post). Shoe factory workers in Vietnam “clearly make more than most of the friends and relatives they leave behind in rural areas” (Oregonian). Nike’s five contractors in Vietnam paid “more than twice what a teacher earns and considerably above the salary of a young doctor at a state-run hospital” (L.A. Times).
News accounts also report that Nike workers — especially single women living away from home — manage to save large amounts of their income, in some cases as much as 75 percent. According to the Oregonian, most workers in Asian footwear factories save 30 to 60 percent of their pay.
As further evidence, reports show that jobs at Nike contractors are sought after. Sweatshop critics have acknowledged that workers have voluntarily taken their jobs, consider themselves lucky to have them and want to keep them.
As the Oregonian reports, “Young, impoverished Asians desperately want to be part of (Nike’s) team. While the industrialized world wrestles with allegations that such factories are inhumane sweatshops, the poor and unemployed in the developing world know only that they want to work in one.” A Vietnamese worker had “never heard of Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan and has never worn a pair of sneakers. But she knows this for sure: her assembly-line job at the Nike plant here rescued her from poverty” (USA Today). “Jobs are scarce in Southeast Asia …, and for millions of unskilled Vietnamese, a job at Nike would seem a prize not much shy of hitting the lottery” (L.A. Times).
Apparently, such workers are confused or the victims of false consciousness. Thus, Charles Kernaghan of the union-backed National Labor Committee says, “Whether workers think they are better off in the assembly plants than elsewhere is not the real issue.” Two years ago a watchdog group in Vietnam leaked a secret Nike factory audit conducted by Ernst & Young. That report contained a survey of 50 workers that showed that 41 of them liked the work and pay.
What about conditions at Nike plants? The anti-sweatshop group Community Aid has this to say: “It is true that workers in shoe factories in Indonesia enjoy conditions which are better than those in many other industries, and for some, better than those at home in the village.” Press reports corroborate this view: One Nike plant in Indonesia was found to be “a cut above the typical plant found (there)” (Oregonian). Factories in Indonesia “are relatively clean, the ceilings are high, and open side windows in most of them provide ventilation. In areas where there is more dust or odors, surgical masks are provided” (Washington Post). Nike factories in China visited by reporters for Time are “modern, clean, well-lighted and ventilated.” And so on.
What of the reports that supervisors at “sweatshops” treat workers abusively? Sometimes, unquestionably, they do. But interviews with workers suggest that boredom is the main complaint, not abusive treatment. There have been well-publicized cases where supervisors have behaved abusively, including two incidents that are endlessly recycled by Nike’s critics. In the first incident, several women fainted while being forced to run laps around the perimeter of three warehouses as a punishment, and in the second, a supervisor slapped some workers with shoe “uppers.”
None of this is to deny that working conditions are harsh by Western standards. Conditions at Nike plants are probably better — but maybe not by much — than those generally found in Asian footwear plants. The Oregonian’s Jeff Manning has described those conditions: “Work at the factories is grueling, and the hours are long. Seven-day weeks are not uncommon. It’s a Spartan world of rigid, militaristic discipline, where water can cost money, toilet breaks can be monitored, and talking too much can get you fined. Supervisors, often hamstrung by language and cultural barriers, sometimes fall into verbal and physical harassment. Turnover is high, as much as 4 to 5 percent a month at some factories.”
For all their warts, so-called “sweatshops” represent an economic opportunity for tens and maybe hundreds of millions of workers. They are also a proven formula for economic development; just ask Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong — not to mention Britain and the United States — all of which graduated from sweatshops to high-skill, well-paid jobs.
These countries demonstrate that the best cure for the ills of sweatshops is more sweatshops. Chicago Tribune’s Stephen Chapman has put it best: “When I heard the news that Nike makes its products in Third World factories that pay a pittance and sometimes use child labor, I felt guilty that I had recently bought a pair of Nike shoes. If I had known, I would have done the right thing. I would have bought two pairs.”
Ian Maitland is a professor at the Carlson School of Management. He welcomes comments at [email protected]