"Sweatshop" Wages

I have little patience for the campaign against American companies, particularly apparel companies, for operating "sweatshops" in other countries.  A bunch of American middle class protesters who have generally never been to the country involved complain that wages paid are too low.  Why too low?  Well, the only basis I can determine is that they are declare too low because the protesters involved would never take that $12 a day job themself.  Of course, the protesters have never wallowed in miserable poverty trying to live on $2 a day. As I wrote before:

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They
distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart,
that is what globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism
that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change,
change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold
generations of utter poverty.

This week, with a hat tip to Cafe Hayek, I found this interesting new study by Powell and Skarbeck on wages at American plants in 3rd world nations.


We examined the apparel industry in 10 Asian and Latin American countries
often accused of having sweatshops and then we looked at 43 specific accusations
of unfair wages in 11 countries in the same regions. Our findings may seem
surprising. Not only were sweatshops superior to the dire alternatives
economists usually mentioned [such as working on subsistence farms], but they
often provided a better-than-average standard of living for their workers.


The apparel industry, which is often accused of unsafe working conditions and
poor wages, actually pays its foreign workers well enough for them to rise above
the poverty in their countries. While more than half of the population in most
of the countries we studied lived on less than $2 per day, in 90 percent of the
countries, working a 10-hour day in the apparel industry would lift a worker
above - often far above - that standard. For example, in Honduras, the site of
the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker
earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country's population lives on less
than $2 per day.

Cafe Hayek concludes:

Powell's and Skarbek's lesson is straightforward and important. But it's a
lesson too often ignored by "activists" who would rather pose and prance as
moral crusaders than analyze situations in ways that might actually help people.
The lesson is summarized by what I call "The Economist's Question: "As
compared to what?"

In and of itself, situation A is neither good nor bad; it is good or bad only
in comparison with it's real alternatives.  This lesson is a hard one, perhaps
-- it's certainly an unromantic one -- but it's indispensable for sound


  • I think it's worthwhile to point out that these arguments only hold true in cases where the sweatshop workers are taking the jobs _voluntarily_. (In most of the third world, of course, that's exactly what's happening. The case against China, however, is not deflated.)

  • Matt's correct observation aside, I would suggest that, at least to the more depraved among them, the real, unspoken, complaint is that the wages paid are too *high*. For those against industrialization on principle, and for agrarian, subsistence living and central planning on principle, $12.00 a day is high enough to be a threat to those ideals, for the very reasons you cite.

  • Estes

    Pay should be based on community standards. If, as is happening in Mexico, the pay for gardners and cooks working for benevolent gringos is higher than teachers and doctors, a lot of resentment is created.

  • If you found that article interesting, then you should also check my recent blog 'Why feminists should support sweatshops'. It outlines research on the social impact on women garment workers in Bangladesh.

  • Soleil

    Protesting against the pitiful wages people in 3rd world countries are paide may seem ignorant to you, but you must keep in mind that these companies can afford to pay the people MUCH more and help them live MUCH easier. Also, a vast majority of these factories are extremely unhealthy and unsafe, compared to your farmer's farm that you mentioned.

    I just find it ludacris that all of the CEOs rake in millions at the top while the people at the bottom working 20 hours a day are treated as subhmans and are paid barely enough to live off of.