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Where Sweatshops are a Dream

A Times columnist argues that sweatshop jobs, however awful they seem to us, can be a way out of poverty for millions overseas

By Nicholas D. Kristof in Cambodia

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about "labor standards," I'd like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It's a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires. The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn.

Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for 5 cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

President Obama and others who favor labor standards in trade agreements with foreign countries mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don't exploit enough people.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children. "I'd love to get a job in a factory," says Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. "At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it's hot."

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old son grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks.

Oeun's son has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

Symptom or Cause?

I'm glad many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by low-paid, barely legal workers. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause. Banning them closes off one route out of poverty.

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: Would you want to work in a sweatshop? Of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn't the bottom. My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in Asia, watching as living standards soared—including those in my wife's ancestral village in southern China—because of sweatshop jobs.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the retail cost of goods.

That's true. But labor standards and "living wages" have a large impact on the production costs that companies are always trying to hold down. This pushes companies to operate more automated factories that employ fewer people in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has worked with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It's a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes—sometimes a month's salary—in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn't to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things the U.S. could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage imports from Africa and nudge Europe to match it.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns less than $1 a day scavenging, and whose sister lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

"It's dirty, hot, and smelly here," she says. "A factory is better."