More sweatshops, please

While campaigning, Barack Obama made a point of repeatedly criticizing free trade agreements for lacking adequate humanitarian provisions. He argued that any future agreements should include humanitarian clauses and that existing agreements should be renegotiated to provide for wage guarantees and labor protections.

The focal point for this antipathy is the sweatshop. Reviled and denounced, it has long been a cornerstone of progressive ideology that trade must be curtailed and restricted in an attempt to limit the exploitation of third world workers.  This faith in the evils of the sweatshop is popular, widespread, honorably intentioned, and completely misguided.

We need more third world sweatshops. We need more products and more companies to commit to opening factories in the poorest of communities. The simple fact is that as appalling as the conditions is these factories are, the workers they employ have found an avenue out of a grinding poverty and despair that is simply unimaginable to the average American.

Nicholas Kristof writes for the New York Times. I’ve lifted the quotes in this post from his columns and blog. His stories are compelling and disturbing, and they need to be heard.

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. …

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia. …

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.” — “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

There’s video below of families and children who live and scavenge on a giant dump, searching and sorting through acres of refuse and toxic waste to eke out a meager existence. This is the barest, meanest kind of scavenging; scrabbling for plastic amid garbage fires and grinding machinery.

Dump Dwellers in Phnom Penh:

It’s much, much worse that sitting at a sewing machine for 14 hours a day. But it’s not as bad as slavery.

“A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.

“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. … Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.” …

Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead. — Striking the Brothel’s Bottom Line

Increase economic opportunities for women and you decrease the number of women who are forced into prostitution. Women with economic resources–however small those resources may seem to an American–have leverage and opportunities that help them resist predation. Raise the standard of living and fewer families will sell their children, fewer husbands will abandon their homes, and fewer girls will be forced into slavery.

Free trade increases economic opportunities.

It also increases literacy and education. Along with economic opportunities, globalization makes it harder for corrupt governments to keep their populations ignorant and pliant. As money flows around the globe, so too does culture and expectation. Unfortunately, the same progressive instinct that derides free trade scorns the growing influence of Western culture as a kind of tyranny in its own right.

But cultural exchange involves more than hamburgers and bad television shows; along with cultural exchange comes a change in expectation and a change in the demands of a citizenry. The more communities intermingle financially, the more communities intermingle socially. As financial opportunities rise in third world cultures, so too do expectations.Trade brings prosperity, but more importantly, trade fosters an expectation for more trade.

In much of the third world, poverty is greatly exacerbated by endemic corruption and a culture that favors force, threat, and violence over voluntary exchange. In such a place, trade is an antidote, an antibiotic that works against corruption and vice. Such rhetoric may seem fanciful, but it’s application can be seen time and time again. As trade increases, so does literacy. As literacy increases, so does demand for democracy and accountability. As trade increases, so does awareness.

Americans know much more about the conditions of factory workers in China and Taiwan than they do about the plight of dump dwellers in Phnom Penh or slavery in Kenya primarily because they have much more business with China and Taiwan.

I hadn’t a clue about [Mombasa’s] thriving sex business until I noticed dozens of women and several girls and boys, no older than age 10, dressed for sale on the narrow road heading north from the city. …

This situation is just the latest example of malfeasance and human rights misery that follows the weakest governments. Child sex tourism in Mombasa is the direct result of lax local laws and corrupt public officials, including police. The police tried on five occasions to take my driver’s license and hold it for a bribe; one can only imagine how they engage in the finances of sex work and childhood sex slavery. While the core of the problem is poverty, it’s clear that poor governance plays an enormous role in it.

Mombasa’s child sex trade is a disturbing thing to watch, but I found that it’s exploding everywhere in this scenic city, one of Africa’s major tourist destinations. Officially, the problem doesn’t exist, but according to one estimate, up to 30,000 girls between 12 and 14 years old are currently being lured into hotels and private villas along Mombasa’s north and south coasts where they are sexually exploited with promises of riches and trips abroad. …

The rise of this trade is shocking, and the speed of its establishment is staggering. It could only have happened under the circumstances that now persist in Kenya: a culture of corruption that increases poverty and speeds decay. …

In countries with better (but by no means perfect) governance like Uganda, Tanzania and here in Rwanda, child sex tourism is virtually non-existent (but there are signs that the child sex trade is growing). —  On the Ground

Trade isn’t the only solution to Kenya’s problems, but it’s the first place to start. Unlike government aid, which rewards corruption and helps prop up whatever political regime happens to be in power, trade funnels money to private interests. Trade that crosses geographical boundaries also crosses political boundaries. But trade is not developed through regulations and restrictions. The laws that limit textile manufacturing, for example, in Kenya serve no one’s interest. The laws keep children out of the factories, but not off the streets.

Finally, there’s personal testimony.

Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh. The brothel owner, a woman as is typical, beat Pross and tortured her with electric current until finally the girl acquiesced.

She was kept locked deep inside the brothel, her hands tied behind her back at all times except when with customers.

Brothel owners can charge large sums for sex with a virgin, and like many girls, Pross was painfully stitched up so she could be resold as a virgin. In all, the brothel owner sold her virginity four times. …

Pross herself was never paid, and she had no right to insist on condoms (she has not yet been tested for HIV, because the results might be too much for her fragile emotional state). Twice she became pregnant and was subjected to crude abortions.

The second abortion left Pross in great pain, and she pleaded with her owner for time to recuperate. “I was begging, hanging on to her feet, and asking for rest,” Pross remembered. “She got mad.”

That’s when the woman gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal. At that point in telling her story, Pross broke down and we had to suspend the interview. — If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?

With the injury, Pross was useless to the brothel and was discarded. She’s currently under the care of a humanitarian organization, is learning how to read and studying a trade. The video ends with Pross saying,

“When I finish my training in sewing, I would like to go home and make a business, like a seamstress.”

A seamstress.

Long Pross: