'Sweatshops' Revisited

The charges were appalling. American television personality Kathy Lee Gifford had put her name to a line of clothing made in Honduras in "monstrous sweatshops of the New World Order" by workers paid "slave wages." Embarrassed, Mrs. Gifford has urged better working conditions for third-world garment workers. But the issue is more complicated than it has been portrayed.

The group making the charges, the National Labor Committee, gets some of its funding from American labor unions, which oppose free trade. And what sounds like wage exploitation to North Americans is viewed by many in the third world as liberation from a life of unending menial farm labor. They see US critics as mainly interested in protecting US jobs and depriving people elsewhere of theirs.

A New York Times reporter recently visited several Honduran garment plants. He found that conditions varied, but that most workers seemed glad to have the much-sought-after jobs. Union leaders there were unhappy with criticism of teen-age employment; Honduran families need the money. Pay is considered good.

We do not support exploitation of the very young or abysmal work conditions. But it's not fair to demand that developing countries meet all US labor standards.

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