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An ode to low-cost labor

By Erick Washbourne
web posted October 12, 2020

With the development of capitalism and the free market there inevitably comes the question of where to source labor. Big companies are constantly looking for cheaper and cheaper labor to increase manufacturing profitability, and they often turn to third world countries: where else to find cheap workers than areas with abysmal unemployment rates and poverty-stricken families desperate for a living wage?

To some, this seems a horrendous crime--seemingly taking advantage of the locals in these areas, forcing upon them inhumane working conditions and paying them next to nothing. How can these heartless corporations exploit the lack of regulations in third world countries and treat their residents so poorly for monetary gain? However, these “sweatshops” provide better opportunities than many of the workers’ alternatives. Those attesting to the immorality of such practices live in first world countries, and thus their only basis for comparison is the opportunities available to them. However, these opportunities are irrelevant as they don’t accurately represent what is available to citizens of third world countries. For many, sweatshops prove to be the best option, with higher wages than the alternatives and even having more humane working conditions.

Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman touches on this in his article “In praise of Cheap Labor”, in which he defends the use of sweatshops for low-cost manufacturing and raises the question: “why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land--or of a Filipino scavenging on a garbage heap?” (Krugman 1997). He continues to explain that the difference lies in the fact that those working in sweatshops are doing so for our benefit - that their cheaper labor provides for lower prices on imported goods for the end user - and that this leads to our self-righteous protests for better working conditions. The foundation of these demands, then, lies not in empathy, but in guilt.

Personally, I agree with Krugman’s sentiment. Many of us have no firsthand experience with the extent of poverty that families in third world countries are subject to. We have nothing to compare their work conditions to but our own, and that’s not a fair comparison. When you contrast working in a sweatshop with the other alternatives - oftentimes backbreaking days spent in the fields or merely scavenging - it becomes evident that it really is the best option for many. The only reason we feel the need to speak out and protest against the supposed inhumanity is because we directly gain from their labor, and so we feel guilty and need to sanctimoniously express our outrage to satisfy some inner feeling of righteousness. Because as humans, we feel the undying need to be morally superior, and protesting an issue that - to speak plainly - many of us aren’t truly educated about is just another way to satisfy that itch. ESR

Erick Washbourne is a high school student and this is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right. © 2020 Erick Washbourne

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