Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?
Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

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Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

1.2.9 In praise of cheap offshore labour? continued

Significantly, no one from the pro-market lobby is actually denying that sweatshops exist, or trying to cover up the fact that workers in such places have to endure bad working conditions. But, as the subtitle of Krugman's (1997) article suggests: ‘bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all’. Low as the wages are in the offshore T-shirt or microwave factories compared with those in more developed economies, they tend to be higher than those of other workers around them. The human side to globalisation, on this view, is that thousands of people, mainly women, take these jobs because that is the best hope that they have. Of course, Western, and indeed non-Western, firms will shift their business from one low-cost country to the next, as Nike and others did before them, but not without first leaving behind the spoils of globalisation: the dollars in circulation, the improved trading facilities, the better communications and, above all, the prospect of moving beyond the global factory business. In short, it is in the broad interests of those working in sweatshop industries to ensure that the cheapness of their labour is capitalised upon – that it is put to use – by overseas firms. Any other set of actions, by all concerned, it is argued, would be irresponsible.

Not everyone, however, primarily those in the antisweatshop movement, would agree with this claim. For them, the logic of unfolding events is deeply contestable. In fact, they would argue that it is because we are so used to thinking that the market is a law unto itself, that we allow ourselves to be deluded by its simple logic. As we shall see in the next section, far from being a good thing, those in the antisweatshop movement claim that the constant search by the clothing giants and other multinationals for ever-cheaper offshore locations seals the fate of the poorer nations. Economic globalisation, of the kind that exploits the difference in wage levels between countries, they declare, is not part of the solution for the poor of this world: it is at the heart of the problem. The human side to globalisation for them is not about using poverty as an economic asset, it is about sharing in a more equitable manner the benefits that globalisation can bring. This is the message that the antisweatshop campaigners have tried forcefully to ‘bring home’ to consumers in the West and beyond.

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