The World Needs More Sweatshops, Not Fewer

Any job, freely taken, is better than no job.

The teaser for the New York Times article "Where Sweatshops Are a Dream" read:

What the world's most impoverished people need isn't fewer sweatshops, but more of them.

The article introduced readers to the rather complex economy which has grown up around a trash dump in the Philippines.  It's too expensive for businesses which generate trash to pay regular employees to sort the trash, so hundreds of people pick through the dump looking for items of value.

Their finds are sold to middlemen who sell to organizations which realize value by recycling.  As with most such informal economies, the bulk of the revenue accrues to the middlemen, but the people at the bottom of the (trash) heap scrape out a meager existence.

The scavengers are completely off the government radar.  They receive no water, electricity, sewage, or public services.  They squat in hovels thrown together from dump salvage.

They aren't served by the education system either, so there's little opportunity to learn skills which might lead to better jobs outside the dump.

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.

The Times understands that these people would be far better off if an international firm would open a sweatshop nearby so they could get better jobs.

Vath Sam Oeun hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks.  Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

Do-gooders who excoriate Nike for operating sweatshops forget that most sweatshop workers choose to sweat there because they're better off than they would be without the sweatshop.

There are exceptions, of course.  The government of China operates factories in prison camps where inmates work for no wages.  Some Chinese businessmen have attempted to enslave workers to avoid paying wages, but this has resulted in jail time when it's been found out.

Such aberrations aside, the Times wrote that most sweatshop employees are better off than if the jobs were not available.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared - including those in my wife's ancestral village in southern China - because of sweatshop jobs.

It's A Matter of Productivity

Do-gooders who crusade against sweatshops forget that before people can consume food and clothes, the goods must first be produced.  Taking the entire world as a whole, it is impossible for the average person to consume more goods than are produced by the average person.

A portion of the population such as children, retirees, prisoners, police, and other government employees consume without producing anything of economic value.  Economists pay close attention to the overall national productivity because the more goods are produced by whatever fraction of the population actually produces, the higher average consumption can be.

The United States has the highest percentage of jail inmates in the world; this takes a lot of people out of production.  We have a large and growing welfare population who don't produce anything, and a large and growing government bureaucracy who not only don't produce, they write rules making it more expensive for others to produce.

We've been able to provide goods for all these nonproductive people to consume because our productivity is so high that the amount of goods produced by our workers is great enough to supply goods to all these people who don't produce.

Even considering the tremendous (and quite probably world-beating) percentage of Americans who produce nothing useful whatsoever, American national per capita productivity as a whole is still the highest in the world.  Economists bicker over fine details, but it's generally recognized that our workers are productive because a) they're well educated and b) employers supply machinery which makes them more productive.

Both the machinery and education inputs to productivity require investment.  Students spend unproductive years learning how to be productive taxpayers; businesses have to save up money or take out loans to buy machinery.

Absent these inputs, we're left with hand-manufactured goods as in the days before sewing machines.  In that day, people were lucky to have two sets of garments.  What a contrast to the overflowing closets in the modern developed world!

What has this to do with sweatshops?  The dump-pickers haven't been to school.  They're pretty good at estimating the value of a piece of plastic by feeling it, but they have no skills which are worth anything to employers.

If the do-gooders restrict business' ability to hire them through such laws as minimum wage, restricted hours, mandatory health care, unionization, or any other measures which push up the cost of employing them, people who aren't worth much due to lack of skills won't have jobs at all - just as the Filipino trash pickers have no formal jobs nor hope of ever having one.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries.  But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely. [emphasis added]

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people.  But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She's wearing a "Playboy" shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

"It's dirty, hot and smelly here," she said wistfully. "A factory is better."

Sweatshop jobs, like the jobs Democrats love to eliminate by increasing the minimum wage every few years, are the very first step up the economic ladder.  As we've pointed out, words that make people feel good can be helpful, but results are what count.  If well-meaning but misguided liberals raise the first step of the job ladder too high, people whose skills won't take them that high spend the rest of their lives sorting trash outside the regular economy, just as low-cost illegals work outside the regular American economy and inner-city hoodlums often turn to the informal economy and end up selling illegal drugs.

At least locking people into trash sorting increases recycling, reduces carbon footprint, and helps save the planet.  Al Gore must be pleased.

As the Times says, the world needs more sweatshops, not fewer.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Fairly good article... but I think the issue is more complicated than you're willing to admit. Sure, relaxing the regulations to allow for more sweatshop jobs would improve some people's lives, but that doesn't make the appalling conditions people working in sweatshops are subjected to any more acceptable.

It's a difficult situation, and there is probably no perfect solution. However your article could be misinterpreted as espousing the perpetuation of sweatshop human rights violations, and I think it needs to be clarified that - though they may be better than absolute, abject poverty - they are no shining beacons of bliss-filled gainful employment.
March 25, 2009 9:46 AM
Bob's point is extremely valid, the issue remains one of timing. When regulations raise the cost of employing people past the value they are able to generate for an employer, THOSE PEOPLE BECOME UNEMPLOYABLE. This saws off the lower rungs of the economic ladder, making it impossible for the unskilled to climb out of poverty.

This has happened in the US such that many people are unemployable:

Part of the result has been the creation of an illegal labor market filled by illegal immigrants. This not only undermines the rule of law, which has many unpleasant consequences down the road, it has created an economic underclass IN AMERICA who have no economic protection at all.

So long as sweat shops are better than the alternatives, they represent a net gain. History shows that, although it takes 30 years, sweat shops are the first step in a process that eventually lifts most people out of poverty. Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and now China have walked this path; India is trying to but is held back by over-regulation.
March 25, 2009 9:57 AM

I can see your no Christian and you speak for the greedy.

June 3, 2011 2:15 PM

Christians are supposed to be "people of the book."

Scripture sayeth:

And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing. I Thessalonians 4:11-12

For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. II Thessalonians 3:10-12

It doesn't say "can't work," it says "would not work." Our anti-Biblical welfare system subsidizes idleness.

Charity should come from individuals, not government:

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. Ephesians 4:28

The Bible states the criteria for a woman to receive support. It's relatives first:

If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed. I Timothy 5:16
If she has no relatives, there are standards:

Honour widows that are widows indeed. But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God. Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day. But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth. And these things give in charge, that they may be blameless. But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel. Let not a widow be taken into the number under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man. Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints' feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work. But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith. And withal they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house; and not only idle, but tattlers also and busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. I Timothy 5:3-13

We've come to know some welfare recipients quite well. They KNOW they OUGHT to work but the temptation to be idle at government expense is too great. Also, most of them are not worth minimum wage. Government has sawed off the bottom of the economic ladder. Bad all 'round.

I assert that the Bible reserves charity to churches and to individuals, NOT to government. What verses justify our welfare system?

June 3, 2011 8:06 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...