Lots of China-based bloggers are talking about Nicholas Kristof ’s latest Op-Ed in the New York Times, so I thought I’d attack it from my angle.
Basically, Kristof’s argument is that Western intolerance to sweatshops lead to joblessness and misery in poor countries. After all, a sweatshop job is better than abject poverty.
When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.
My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.
Well, MY views on sweatshops are shaped by a decade of experience running factories in Southern China and by doing business in the greater China for over two decades.
1. If labor standards are constraining the rise of manufacturing in poor countries, and eliminating those standards would help alleviate poverty, why not take it further; why not eliminate safety and quality standards (UL, CE, et al) and environmental standards (RoHS, WEEE) at the same time?
2. I’ve seen a number of ugly facilities in China which I would classify as sweatshops, and have found that these factories tend to waste big bucks through mismanagement of labor and inventory, and then try to draw it back by skimping on workers’ compensation, housing, and benefits. Simply allowing these factories to run on as sweatshops puts no pressure on them to improve their management. (Yes, I’m saying here that even in “low cost countries” such strategies as LEAN and JIT can work to improve results for workers, shareholders and customers alike).