Debate Asks if Sweatshosps Save Lives

Last night at GVSU, a debate was hosted by student groups and the Mackinac Center’s Students for a Free Economy titled “Do Sweatshops Save Lives?” It sought to explore whether sweatshops mean exploitation or enrichment. On a campus once known for its anti-sweatshop activism, it was an odd event.



Last night at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), the GVSU Economics Club–with support from the Mackinac Center’s Students for a Free Economy–hosted an event titled “Do Sweatshops Save Lives? A Debate on Enrichment vs. Exploitation?”

While the event did include participation from GVSU’s Students for Fair Trade and an anti-sweatshop activist from the International Labor Rights Fund, the event was largely aimed at convincing attendees that sweatshops are beneficial to developing economies and workers in developing countries.

Arguing in favor of sweatshops was Benjamin Powell, an economics professor at Suffolk University and a fellow at the conservative Beacon Hill Institute and the Independent Institute. Powell began by describing what a sweatshop is in terms quite similar to what anti-sweatshop activists often use. He said that sweatshops often pay low wages by US standards (often under a dollar per day), have poor working conditions, are uncomfortable, and are often dangerous in some respect. However, he said that a key fact is that workers chose to work there, doing so because it is the best option available to them. This was a central theme of his talk, with Powell explaining that for many workers sweatshops are a better choice than prostitution, trash scavenging, or subsistence farming.

Interestingly, to support his argument, Powell looked at wages paid in sweatshops. He cited data gather through his research to show that wages paid in the garment industry–even ones in Bangladesh paying $0.13 an hour or $0.44 and hour in China–typically out pay other jobs in those economies. He also analyzed wages paid at factories protested as “sweatshops” in the US to show that they pay more than other jobs in those countries.

He argued that it is important that people in the United States not do anything to jeopardize these jobs, otherwise people will be forced into worse jobs. Among the ways that these jobs could be jeopardized are labor standards, minimum wage, and boycotts. Powell argued that conditions will get better as economies develop and workers choices of where to go (i.e. factories that pay more or offer safer conditions) will pressure employers. Moreover, he said that during the industrialization of the US and Europe labor protections were not enacted until production had reached a certain level and he cautioned against campaigns aimed at banning the use of child labor or legalizing collective bargaining laws that might require workers to be part of unions.

Arguing against sweatshops was Bana Athreya of the International Labor Rights Forum. Athreya defined a sweatshop differently than Powell, stating instead that a sweatshop is a “workplace in violation of core labor standards” outlined by the International Labor Organization (ILO). These include four standards:

* Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining

* Elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour

* Effective abolition of child labour

* Elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

She argued that if you have these–along with a functioning industrial democracy and a system to address disputes–wages don’t matter.

Unlike Powell, she talked specifically about conditions in sweatshops. She told the story of Thuyen Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American businessman who visited Nike factories in Vietnam. When he toured the factories at tours setup by Nike, workers said they liked their jobs, but when he went back at night workers told him about harassment ranging from slapping to name calling and begged him to tell their story.

Athreya said that what workers say–not what her or Powell say–matter the most. She said that in Indonesia, where she did research in the early 1990s interview “hundreds and hundreds of workers” in sweatshops, she heard stories about abuses and also stories about workers going to great lengths to organize unions and strikes even when such actions were legally prohibited. Athreya also refuted the idea that workers simply “vote with their feet” if they don’t like their jobs or working conditions. She told of strikes throughout Asia–even some reported in the past couple of weeks–as indicators of what workers really think.

She argued to have a truly “free” labor market, there cannot be political repression and anti-union efforts that hamper workers. Athreya argued for decent working conditions, stating that US history shows that changes were gain through organizing, not benevolent actions on the behalf of employers who suddenly emerge and decide they want to pay more and treat their workers better.

In many ways, the very fact that this event happened represents a victory for the economic right. In the early part of this decade, Grand Valley State University (GVSU)–like many college campuses across the country–was home to an active chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops that won concrete victories. The group at GVSU successfully organized to get the University to sign-on to the Workers Rights Consortium ( to help ensure that University apparel is not made in sweatshops and worked to educate the campus about sweatshops. It’s hard to imagine during that time that a speaker could have come and argued against most even the must basic labor regulations–a prohibition on child labor–without being confronted by angry anti-sweatshop activists.

Author: mediamouse

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