Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Monday, May 09, 2005

"The world's most powerless workers"

It's 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the greater Boston area, and I have dressed for the occasion: a gray-and-red Perry Ellis undershirt; a blue Fruit of the Loom sweatshirt bearing the moniker "United States Navy: Operation Enduring Freedom" on the front and an American flag on the back; and a pair of grey Gap slacks. To shield my hair from the winds, I don my blue-and-red Chicago Cubs cap (from Sports Specialties) and zip up my light-blue-with-black-trim Pacific Trail jacket.

All of the above attire was made in other countries: the undershirt in Bahrain, the sweatshirt in El Salvador, the pants in Vietnam, the ballcap in Korea (it doesn't specify North or South), and the jacket in China. Welcome to the world of slavery, 21st-century style.

Yes, I know, it's not "slavery," it's "sweatshops." Child workers from Indonesia to Mexico -- and the United States, too -- toil for abysmally low wages to make the clothes that I purchase in malls and department stores. But it's the same basic format: exploited group, with no means for advancement, labors for privileged classes. How can concerned people change this awful situation?

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, feels that not enough work is being done -- and in an article in Dissent magazine, he criticizes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for telling the reformers to back down. In an article in Dissent Magazine, Rothstein makes some convincing points.

Kristof contends that while child workers' salaries are low by our standards (for example, $2 a day in Asia), they are significantly higher when compared to incomes in these countries. He also argues that employment at a clothing factory provides a viable alternative to what these children might be doing otherwise: work as prostitutes, beg for money, scrounge in garbage dumps. Rothstein includes testimony from other public intellectuals, including Harvard president and former Treasury head Lawrence Summers, who remarks, "As long as the workers are voluntarily employed, they have chosen to work because they are working to their best alternative."

Kristof is a columnist for a daily newspaper with a circulation of over 1 million. Summers is president of a university whose endowment is worth billions. It is as comic as it is tragic that people like these can attempt to understand the lives of those who grow up in places like, say, the Tondo slums in Manila or the equally horrendous slums along the US-Mexican border. When you live in a squalid city or a desolate countryside, you do not choose between work and unemployment. You choose between life and death.

Any efforts to raise the living conditions of the young workers in the Third and First Worlds deserve praise. Higher wages can increase both financial stability and personal mobility. Better-paying work, however, is only part of the issue; education is equally important. Kristof graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and went on to study at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; Summers has equally lofty credentials (a bachelor's degree from MIT in '75, a Ph.D. from Harvard in '82). Neither of these two men would be in their prominent positions today without an outstanding education during their formative years. Such an education wouldn't hurt the global poor, either.

P.S. Sorry, Nick and Larry. Flogging you limousine (or SUV?) liberals is too easy and fun. My argument should have been more serious. Countless Americans know what it's like to slip on a shirt or pair of pants assembled in a First or Third World sweatshop. It's far more difficult to envision what it might be like to be one of the workers in those sweatshops.


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