The Sweatshop Dilemma

Sweatshops, those dirty little secrets of a free-market economy, have been gaining a great deal of media attention lately. Well-known names such as The Gap, Nike, the Walt Disney Company, and Kathie Lee Gifford have been linked to harsh garment production practices including child labor and wages below the minimum standard. More than an estimated 78 million children under the age of 15 work, but the facts surrounding their working conditions are confusing at best.

An income of $2.28 a day, the base pay of Nike factory workers in Indonesia, sounds like sub-standard compensation. But a recent Washington Post article reveals that not only is Nike in compliance with the minimum wage standard in Indonesia, but its workers receive more than double the daily income of about half the working population. Half of all adults in Indonesia are farmers, who receive less than $1 a day. The factory workers consider themselves fortunate to be earning minimum wage.

I am firmly against sweatshops. No one - child or adult - should have to work in sub-human conditions. But what if working at a sweatshop means the difference between having food to eat each day or not knowing where your next meal is coming from? Not all overseas factories are sweatshops. A sweatshop is defined by a hazardous work environment and exploitative business practices, not the hiring of children or paying less than the US minimum wage.

Not all child labor is exploitative. For most families around the world, children work alongside their parents in tending livestock and harvesting crops. Subsistence living requires the efforts of all family members. That's one reason why the issue of family planning in many developing countries is such a controversial issue: One more child might mean another mouth to feed, but it also means another pair of hands to work.

Unfortunately, there are worse working conditions for children than sweatshops. In Southeast Asia, it is common for families living in extreme poverty to sell their young daughters and sons into prostitution to pay off debts. The younger the child, the higher the selling price.

Proposed solutions such as trade sanctions will make the problem worse. Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, author of the Child Labor Deterrence Act, supports unilateral trade sanctions on all products produced by children. However, sanctions would only force sweatshops further underground, out of the reach of economic regulators. Or worse. The International Labor Organization reports that the mere threat of trade sanctions can lead factory owners to fire their child workers. The lucky ones will find jobs at more hazardous work sites.

One way to keep children and adults out of sweatshops is to eliminate the reason that places them there: poverty. Many nongovernmental organizations such as World Concern are providing small business loans to women in developing countries. Loans as small as $150 provide enough capital for a woman to set up a business like tailoring or crafts-making. Each woman earns enough income to provide food for her family and to send her children to school. Not only is the woman kept out of the sweatshop, but her children are, too.

In a Rose Garden address earlier this month, President Clinton stood with apparel industry leaders to announce that they have agreed to ensure their products are manufactured under safe and humane working conditions. "We believe everyone should work," said Clinton, "but no one should have to put their lives or health in jeopardy to put food on the table for their families." True, people's lives should not be put in jeopardy by working in a sweatshop. But no job means no food. It is a difficult choice to make.

*Paul Kennel is president of World Concern, an international Christian relief and development agency based in Seattle.

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