I have from time to time found myself in conversations with friends who argue that free trade with nations who have no laws protecting laborers, particularly children, actually encourages the exploitation of poor people abroad who find themselves working in sweatshops for pennies a day under awful conditions. My reply has been that the alternative is that without this meager employment these people will simply starve, which is, they would probably judge, a somewhat more awful condition.
When people are living at the subsistence level a few pennies a day is a Godsend, and even though their working conditions are ghastly the poor are certainly better off slaving in these manufaturing shops than not working at all.
Now comes a piece by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times which makes essentially the same point:
Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about "labor standards," I'd like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh. This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It's a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.
The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.
Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don't exploit enough.
Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.
President Obama wants to demand that countries with whom we do business enact child labor laws and other regulations that would in effect eliminate sweatshops, but like so many well-meaning measures it has tragic unintended consequences. Such laws would make many foreign businesses unprofitable and uncompetitive and force them to lay off workers. Where would these workers go? In many places around the world they'd go to the dumps and try their luck at scavenging. This is why Kristoff thinks that so far from trying to eliminate sweatshops we should be encouraging them.
If the Obama administration has its way they will actually increase, not alleviate, poverty and suffering in the poorest nations of the world. The irony is that people here want so much to do something to help the poor that they often don't give much thought to the actual impact their good intentions have on the people they want to help. One might have thought that our experuience over the last forty five years with the "War on Poverty" would have taught us better. Solutions that make us feel good are often the most counterproductive and fraught with unintended consequences.
If you're skeptical you really should read the whole essay and make it a point to watch the accompanying video.RLC