As college students, it’s almost expected that we hate sweatshops and the companies that support them. We’re supposed to feel bad when we see “Made in Honduras” on the tags of our clothes. But what’s often overlooked is that sweatshops are a cause of positive development because they provide jobs and help people escape poverty.
Last week, a group of 22 protesters called for sweatshop-free clothing to be sold by Associated Students UCLA. They were successful and obtained a meeting with ASUCLA management to discuss increasing purchases from Alta Gracia, the only factory of its kind that pays living wages to its workers in the Dominican Republic. While the company is doing good work, the student store is a business, and we should keep that in mind.
Alta Gracia products comprise a small fraction of ASUCLA’s inventory. According to Jessica Rutter, one of the student protesters, ASUCLA has not done enough to market the company. She also said that the $16,000 order we placed with Alta Gracia this year is not large enough to gauge demand for the products.
But it’s not ASUCLA’s job to persuade students to buy the Alta Gracia products. The initial order seems large enough to measure the interest of consumers. Consequently, how much ASUCLA orders from the company for next year should be based on demand for the products in the store to maximize ASUCLA’s financial gains.
The larger issue I have with groups such as these protesters is that students at UCLA and other universities have griped many times over the last decade that we should boycott products made in sweatshops. While the protesters are well-spirited and seem to have the best interests of sweatshop workers in mind, they are doing more to hurt the workers.
To clarify, when I say sweatshop, I am not referring to factories that engage in slavery, physical abuse or violence. I’m talking about low-wage garment factories.
All of the UC campuses are affiliates of the Workers Rights Consortium, which mandates that universities require “living wages” for workers of all licensees, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Consortium. Essentially, this disallows UCLA from working with all companies that use sweatshops and thereby makes it so that nearly all licensees of ASUCLA fail to meet the code of conduct. Nova said that Alta Gracia is the first and only company that meets these rules.
Jorge Cabrera, vice president of a local branch of UAW which was part of the protests, said universities should not buy sweatshop products. But if we decide not to support companies that use sweatshop labor, we are actively putting people in least developed countries out of jobs.
By choosing to work in these factories, workers show that these jobs are better than any others available. Taking these jobs away often leaves the workers to jobs in the informal market, like subsistence farming and prostitution, according to Benjamin Powell, an economist at the Beacon Hill Institute.
One study he quotes shows that when a factory in Bangladesh fired 50,000 children because of pressure from a U.S. senator, a large number of those children ended up becoming prostitutes.
Sweatshops’ labor conditions are not high-quality compared to standards we’re used to in the U.S. But having a job in a sweatshop with sub-standard working conditions is better than having the choice between unemployment and prostitution.
UCLA is a large enough buyer that our purchasing decisions can affect whether a factory is shut down or not.
In countries like Namibia, where unemployment is over 50 percent, sweatshops present jobs that can help reduce poverty.
I am not advocating factories that partake in slavery or the physical abuse of workers. These make up a small portion of the economy and should be shut down immediately. But I am in favor of factories that pay workers a low amount. They provide a way for people in developing countries to earn an income when other jobs are not available.
Powell even said that these types of sweatshops have helped industrialize countries like the U.S. and parts of Europe. The least developed countries are going through that period of economic development now but can do so faster because the world has more capital and better technology.
So why do we see groups like United Students Against Sweatshops but you can’t find a Students for Sweatshops? Because members of the former have made “sweatshops” such a taboo word for our generation that you’d be hard pressed to find students willing to explicitly support them.
But we should remember that these sweatshops have positive effects on the economies of least developed countries.
With $51 million in sales from the UCLA Store last year, ASUCLA is large enough of a buyer to make a difference in the college apparel industry and provide jobs for many people in underdeveloped countries.
We should stop complaining about companies that use sweatshops in developing countries ““ they bring jobs better than the ones currently available to people in those countries.