Waylaid Dialectic

August 19, 2014

Are Sweatshops good for women in Bangladesh?

Filed under: Trade — terence @ 8:35 am
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And interesting new NBER working paper from Rachel Heath and A. Mushfiq Mobarak (disclaimer: I haven’t had time to fully read it yet):

NBER Working Paper No. 20383

We study the effects of explosive growth in the Bangladeshi ready-made garments industry on the lives on Bangladeshi women. We compare the marriage, childbearing, school enrollment and employment decisions of women who gain greater access to garment sector jobs to women living further away from factories, to years before the factories arrive close to some villages, and to the marriage and enrollment decisions of their male siblings. Girls exposed to the garment sector delay marriage and childbirth. This stems from (a) young girls becoming more likely to be enrolled in school after garment jobs (which reward literacy and numeracy) arrive, and (b) older girls becoming more likely to be employed outside the home in garment-proximate villages. The demand for education generated through manufacturing growth appears to have a much larger effect on female educational attainment compared to a large-scale government conditional cash transfer program to encourage female schooling.


This looks like more evidence (if any more was needed) that anti-globalisation arguments against trade are wrong. IT’s also evidence from an interesting direction: gender equality.

Remember though, this isn’t evidence to suggest that sweatshops themselves are good. If you make this argument, you’re falling into the fallacy of one choice and just two options: either trade and sweatshops or no sweatshops and rural poverty. There is a third way: trade plus ongoing campaigning to improve conditions in garment factories, using the levers we have as consumers, though aid, and maybe (maybe, maybe) through trade agreements. While also trying raise human capital through every means possible to ultimately give women in developing countries as many options as those in our countries have. That’s the right way to think about this, I think.

January 13, 2012

iPods don’t exploit people, people do…

Filed under: Trade — terence @ 7:36 am
Tags: , ,

Update: Read this first. It turns out that Mike Daisey was making stuff up.

Chris Blattman finds himself on the horns of a familiar dilemma:

Mike Daisey was a self-described “worshipper in the cult of Mac.” Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out.

That is the tagline from this week’s This American Life, freely available as an mp3 this week. Often funny but also often horrifying: Child workers, terrible workplace injuries, and police state tactics. They have released reports on the Apple subcontractor from October 2010May 2011, and September 2011.

I am of two minds. If even a tenth of the abuses are systematically true, then even the most ardent capitalist among you should be incensed.

On the other hand, I am in the midst of a randomized control trial of factory labor in Ethiopia. One reason is because I believe–and the early results suggest–that the improvements in poverty and work conditions and risk and well-being are huge. Huge huge.

When this choice is presented as a simple binary it is a very unappealing one. Buy iPods and support a system that is exploitative and abusive. Don’t buy iPods and leave people condemned to rural poverty. It’s an agonising choice. For what it’s worth I think the least worst option here is to buy the iPod. But the least worst option in this binary is not the same as the actual best available option in reality. There is a third way. It’s simple.

Continued global trade but with workers’ rights. Workers in factories in China and Ethopia would still receive low wages but they probably wouldn’t be quite as low as is currently the case, and their working conditions definitely wouldn’t be so bad.

And how could this happen? In a world of developing countries that were democratic and well governed, it would be easy: trades unions to offset the bargaining advantage of bosses; and the progressive implementation of some workplace safety laws brought about via the democratic process.

Trouble is, neither China and Ethiopia are democratic or well governed (although I guess the situation is slightly better in Ethiopia???).

Then what? This is where I think there is a very real role for consumer activism in developed countries. As much as possible, avoid products produced in situations where workers’ rights are violated. As much as possible, buy fair trade products. Write to companies to let them know that you’re doing this and why you’re doing this. Don’t tell them “don’t make stuff in China?”; tell them “make stuff in China but protect your workers?” Share this information. Fund entities devoted to obtaining this information.

This is an imperfect, partial solution. But it’s better than either of the horns of the dilemma presented above.

As a footnote. The other potential improvement here is to write labour standards into trade agreements (and actually follow up on this). Most economists hate this (“oh noes don’t limit teh free trade!”). Me I’m kind of in favour: I think in theory it would work. Although in practice, in the messy world of enforcement, political economy, unequal power, and trade agreement negotiations, it may well not.

August 31, 2010

Sweatshops and the fallacy of one choice and just two options

Filed under: Social Justice,Trade — terence @ 8:03 pm
Tags: ,

Well, Bill and Laura may be in abeyance, but the fun and games are continuing over at Aid Watch. Today taking the form of a guest post by Benjamin Powell making the case for sweatshops.

His argument will is a familiar one: poor jobs at poor wages are better than no jobs at all.

Which is correct as far as it goes, but it’s also a perfect illustration of what I’ve (rather inelegantly) decided to call the ‘fallacy of one choice and just two options’. It’s a popular right wing debating technique: either you’re with us or you’re with the enemy; if you’re in favour of protecting the environment then you’re also in favour of ransacking the economy; if you don’t support bombing the s##t out of the Middle East then you’re opposed to fighting terrorism; and if you’re opposed to sweatshops then obviously you’re in favour of protectionism and joblessness for people currently employed in them.

The thing is, in every one of these instances, there’s more than two choices: I am against you and your enemies; I’m in favour of protecting the environment by re-gearing the economy; I think terrorism is better fought through police work, and a political settlement over Israel/Palestine, combined maybe with targeted intervention.

And in the case of sweatshops: I want the workers to stay employed. But I also want their jobs and conditions to improve. Call it the third way, if you will.

Which means supporting initiatives to strengthen workers’ political rights in developing countries, and, particularly when this isn’t possible, sending a signals through the market via purchasing decisions (like buying fair trade), and maybe, just maybe, using trade rules, although only if this isn’t going to have major unintended consequences.

Sweatshops or unemployment – two lousy options. But the thing is, they’re not the only ones. And development, if it means anything, surely means trying to improve the options people have.

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