Are Protesters Wrong About Sweatshops?

Oct. 10, 2003 -- Last month there were big protests when the World Trade Organization met in Cancun, Mexico. There are always protests when this meeting is held. OFTEN the protests are supported by American students who say workers are being mistreated

The students object to what they call sweatshops. They say companies are exploiting poor people, by setting up factories in developing countries and paying workers a fraction of American workers' wages.

The anti-sweatshop protesters appear to be winning the battle of public opinion. In 1996, they made Kathy Lee Gifford cry by saying she was exploiting young workers in Honduras who made her Wal-Mart clothing line. Within weeks, Gifford was admitting the error of her ways. She joined President Clinton at the White House, and renounced the mistakes of her past.

The student groups who protest get some of their funding from labor unions. The steelworkers' union lets "United Students Against Sweatshops" use part of their offices in Washington, D.C. Maybe that's why the protesting students are also upset about wages in America.

More recently, in 2001 student protesters took over the office of Harvard's president, and held it for three weeks, demanding a higher wage for workers at the school. This, too, is a popular cause. Their supporters camped outside, and actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck spoke at a rally to show their support. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., came out and shook the students' hands.

The national organizer of United Students Against Sweatshops, Ben McKean, assembled a group of student leaders to tell us why sweatshops must be changed.

"Workers have no choices about what their lives are, they have to go to work in these factories. The workers themselves have come to us and said, 'You benefit from our exploitation, give us back something," he said.

Good Intentions, Bad Results?

All that sounds very nice. But when we talked to some people who live in places where the workers are supposedly being exploited in sweatshops, we heard a different story.

We caught up with an economist and several policy analysts on their way to the World Trade Organization Meeting in Cancun. Bibek DeBroy, an economist who lives in India, said he wishes the protesters would "think with their brains rather than with their hearts." DeBroy said, "I don't understand the expression sweatshops. There's nothing wrong with sweat. Sweat is good. Sweat is what people in the developing world, including India, do all the time."

Doesn't the United States have the responsibility to stop companies from exploiting people in countries like India?

Kenya's June Arunga, who studies trade policy, doesn't think so. She said nobody in her country thinks about companies exploiting them. "When there's a new company opening a factory people are excited about it," she said.

Arunga and DeBroy point out that in poor countries, the Nike factories that rich American students call sweatshops routinely pay twice what local factories pay, and more than triple what people earn doing much harder and more dangerous work in the fields. Arunga says people in Kenya would volunteer to work in sweatshops for free, just to have access to clean running water and electricity without carrying firewood. "I wish we would have more sweatshops, quote unquote, in my country," Arunga told me.

Most economists agree that "sweatshops" are what allowed people in now-thriving places like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore to work their way out of poverty.

A Win-Win Situation?

Arunga said, "People get jobs in these places, their generation lives better than their parents lived. Most of them work for these companies for a while, go off and start their own businesses, it's a win-win situation for everyone," she said.

And that, she says, is why the students who protest are ignorant and clueless.

"They're comparing that to what they have in their rich homes," she said, "They're people who are very wealthy. They have no idea what they're talking about."

I told McKean and the student protesters that Arunga and DeBroy called people like them rich, ignorant and clueless.

I said they have an unrealistic idea of how they're going to make things nice in the third world.

"The image that we have as being rich and clueless and just idealist college students is a false one," said Mandie Yanasak.

"Do I have a vision of how I want the world to be? Sure. Of course I do. I want the world to be one where people don't have to struggle to feed their children," she said.

Lindsay-Marisol Enyart, another student, said, "We're talking about workers who don't have a choice and are forced to leave their home farms."

But who's forcing them? They aren't being chained and dragged into the factory.

If you insist on higher wages, I told the students, some of these factories will close, and people are going to be put out of work. Yanasak said, "We're not trying to close down sweatshops, we're trying to change sweatshops."

But Bibek DeBroy said if these students get their way, it won't help people in the developing world. "It would mean fewer jobs, lower incomes, more people in poverty," he said. Arunga agreed, saying, "By passing laws trying to improve the jobs by force, they will get rid of the jobs."

After the protests against Kathie Lee's clothing line, Wal-Mart withdrew its contract from one of the "sweatshops." American complaints about child labor persuaded factories in Bangladesh to stop hiring adolescents. The result, according to UNICEF, is many of the young girls turned to prostitution.

This helps poor people?

Give Me a Break.