Thursday, July 16, 2009

"Confessions of a Sweat Shop Inspector"

I'm not sure I'm comfortable with the term sweat shop as it could liberally apply as much to domestic Western factories as those overseas. There has been a push - particularly in consumer based industries (so I haven't seen as much of it as a requirement personally), to impose Western values and standards on vendors in Asia. This is an excellent article on both the benefits and disadvantages of doing so (Washington Monthly via Club for Growth) - with many similar experiences I've had over here. Here are a few highlights:

I don't pretend that everything monitoring brings about is for the best. An example: Mattel's factories in China are superb, but workers there often earn less than their peers in shadier factories because their employers confine them to shorter workweeks to avoid paying overtime. Another: You may rightly hate the idea of child labor, but firing a fourteen-year-old in Indonesia from a factory job because she is fourteen does nothing but deprive her of income she is understandably desperate to keep. (She'll find worse work elsewhere, most likely, or simply go hungry.) [...]

That's why monitoring and enforcement have such an important role to play. We don't expect developing nations to match us in what their workers earn. (A few dollars a day is a fortune in many nations.) But when a Chinese factory saves money by making its employees breathe hazardous fumes and, by doing so, closes down a U.S. factory that spends money on proper ventilation and masks, that's wrong. It's wrong by any measure. And that's what we can do something about if we try.
Given the increasing difficulty that most factories find in hiring and keeping good workers, I'd suggest that the lack of regulatory health controls is a self regulating condition that's already happening. That said, with still a fairly weak level of legal rights for workers, I also can't disagree with the idea that outsiders should exercise their power on a moral basis to ensure the health and safety of the workers that make their products.

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