Thursday, 11 February 2010

Sweatshops revisited

Last year I took the "pro" position in favour of sweatshops in a debate hosted by EconSoc; my opening salvo posted here.

Steve Landsburg today points to a very nice old piece from the New Internationalist on the costs of US bans on importing goods produced by child labourers.
No. No photographs. Saleha is scared. Many a time she has hidden under tables, been locked up in the toilet, or been sent to the roof in the scorching sun for two or three hours. It happens whenever foreign buyers enter the factory. She knows she is under-age, and doesn’t want photographers messing things up – she needs the job. The whole industry has suddenly become sensitive. Owners want their factories open. The workers want their jobs. The special schools for former child labourers want aid money. No photographs.

Neither Saleha nor any of the other child workers I have interviewed have ever heard of Senator Tom Harkin. All they know is that pressure from the US, which buys most of Bangladesh’s garments, has resulted in thousands of them losing their jobs at a stroke.

According to a press release by the garment employers in October 1994: ‘50,000 children lost their jobs because of the Harkin Bill.’ A UNICEF worker confirms ‘the jobs went overnight’.

The controversial bill, the ‘Child Labor Deterrence Act’, had first been introduced in 1992. A senior International Labour Organization (ILO) official has no doubt that the original bill was put forward ‘primarily to protect US trade interests’ – Tom Harkin is sponsored by a key US trade union, and cheap imports from the Third World were seen as undercutting American workers’ jobs. ‘When we all objected to this aspect of the Bill,’ says the ILO official, ‘which included a lot of resistance in the US, the Bill was amended, the trading aspect was toned down, and it was given a humanitarian look.’ It was when it was reintroduced after these amendments in 1993 that the Bill had its devastating impact in Bangladesh.

The child workers themselves find it particularly hard to interpret the US approach as one of ‘humanitarian concern’. When asked why the buyers have been exerting such pressure against child labour, Moyna, a ten-year-old orphan who has just lost her job, comments: ‘They loathe us, don’t they? We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.’ Moyna’s job had supported her and her grandmother but now they must both depend on relatives.

Other children have had no alternative but to seek new kinds of work. When UNICEF and the ILO made a series of follow-up visits they found that the children displaced from the garment factories were working at stone-crushing and street hustling – more hazardous and exploitative activities than their factory jobs.
Would that there were a hell and that it judged politicians by their effects rather than their intentions.

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