When I saw Nicholas Kristof’s column on sweatshops last week (Where Sweatshops Are a Dream), I just rolled my eyes, since this is an argument that he has been making for years now.
I was pleased to see that there were so many letters lambasting him a few days later. The one I liked best pointed out that Cambodia, the country Kristof focuses on in this latest column, doesn’t exactly support his case: “Cambodian garment shops are among the best in Asia because of a deal done with the United States in a trade treaty signed in 1999.” But Kristof’s apologetics undermine the very labor agreements that would bring that about.
D&S columnist John Miller wrote against Kristof on this topic a couple of years ago, in his article Nike to the Rescue?, back when the globe-trotting Kristof was praising sweatshops in Namibia. Here’s what John had to say then:
Nicholas Kristof has been beating the pro-sweatshop drum for quite a while. Shortly after the East Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, Kristof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now columnist for the New York Times, reported the story of an Indonesian recycler who, picking through the metal scraps of a garbage dump, dreamed that her son would grow up to be a sweatshop worker. Then, in 2000, Kristof and his wife, Times reporter Sheryl WuDunn, published “Two Cheers for Sweatshops” in the Times Magazine. In 2002, Kristof’s column advised G-8 leaders to “start an international campaign to promote imports from sweatshops, perhaps with bold labels depicting an unrecognizable flag and the words ‘Proudly Made in a Third World Sweatshop.'”
Now Kristof laments that too few poor, young African men have the opportunity to enter the satanic mill of sweatshop employment. Like his earlier efforts, Kristof’s latest pro-sweatshop ditty synthesizes plenty of half-truths.
Part of John’s response:
Kristof’s argument is no excuse for sweatshop abuse: that conditions are worse elsewhere does nothing to alleviate the suffering of workers in export factories. They are often denied the right to organize, subjected to unsafe working conditions and to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, forced to work overtime, coerced into pregnancy tests and even abortions, and paid less than a living wage. It remains useful and important to combat these conditions even if alternative jobs are worse yet.
The fact that young men in Namibia find sweatshop jobs appealing testifies to how harsh conditions are for workers in Africa, not the desirability of export factory employment.
The whole article is worth a read, though it’s dismaying that we still have to be making these arguments. Someone needs to take away Kristof’s passport before he spreads his apologetics to even more corners of the earth.