Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Let's trade. We give tired masses to get sweat shops

The term sweat shop is a very uniquely American term. Notice that a bit of sweat isn't a bad thing in parts of the world where people starve to death in the noonday sun.

Was chatting with a friend on line about Christmas presents. We went to uni in the states together. She was of the view that she would improve the world by taking a stand against retail outlets who manufactured their clothings or toys in sweat shops.

This is one discussion that always gets me going so I will write it out here and link future recipients to this post.

In the first place one has to understand that living conditions and the 'local context' have a different flavour and odour in different parts of the world. For example, I live in a middle class neighbourhood in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. It seems comfortable to me and it seems convenient.

Yet during my student days in the US we had other conveniences such as 24 hour super markets, broadband internet access and so on. Broadband is available in Malaysia (adoption around 1%) but it hasn't quite become as pervasive so living without broadband is pretty ok still. No one looks at you like a three legged chicken or a square egg.

The reverse is also sometimes true. Cellular phones here are so much 'cooler' than the clunky ones I see my American friends using. Heck cellular phones are so pervasive here that there are rumbles in the government about cellular competing too hard against wireline infra. The cellular life just seems so much more pervasive here.

So back to sweat shops. I think it's swell that some folks belief that work conditions should be a certain way in their country. For example, let's say we believe a work place should be well lit, air conditioned and provide clean drinking water. This may be your idea of the minimum level of a workplace.

Then we go somewhere more affluent. Perhaps a work place there has a minimum level which adds to these and says you need to have exercise facilities in the building and so on. At what point do we decide that this is indeed the bare minimum?

May I suggest that this is best left to the person who is actually doing the work.

Let me give you an example. A big name shoe maker produces shoes in Malaysia. Since they would be accused of all kinds of nonsense, they came up with a great idea. Hire the workers as contractors.

Every day a truck goes around and drops off a certain amount of materials for these women to glue and stitch. Most village women here can sew to a certain extent or are at least capable of learning. Training is minimal and every worker is paid by pieces of work completed. Finished products are picked up on the next day and more material is provided.

Let's look at a hypothetical Sally who is a village woman. Sally's home in Malaysia would probably qualify as worse than a sweat shop. However, it's better than what their neighbours have. Since she started making shows she has been able to afford to put a stone skirting around her wooden home. This stops the flood waters from coming in. It also allows them to have a small refrigerator. She dreams of having a washing machine next which would certainly help. It hurts to stitch when your hands are soft after soaking them in soap. They have also managed to buy a few cans of paint and painted their home.

Its quite a cheerful place and the neighbours drop by for biscuits and tea from time to time. No one really cares to make an appointment and folks just drop by to say hi. Sometimes they chat about when they were younger.

Next door to Sally is another woman who runs a stall at the market (no air conditioned hyper markets either, just a tarp on the ground there). Slowly as Sally starts to have some purchasing power, meaning they now skip two meals a month instead of twenty, things also begin to improve for the community around them as they buy more and money flows.

This 'sweat shop' model works amazingly well in the absence of corruption and interference.

Then along comes some 'social activist', let's call him Bob. Bob comes from a rich country and enjoys the privileges of social activism simply because his neighbours are rich enough to support his lack of industry. Or perhaps he had wealthy parents who managed to earn enough money in a land of plenty to subsidize his 'activism'. Or perhaps enough people in his society feel enough guilt to fund his ways. Who knows, who cares.

Bob comes to developing country. Generally speaking these folks have never 'walked a mile' in the shoes of the 'poor victims'. Note, most of the poor victims would not have shoes if not for their jobs but thats another story. So under the cover of protecting these people they use all kinds of means to gather 'shocking news'.

A favourite tactic is to recruit a local bunch who then will carry a big fat proud label 'NGO'. Not surpisingly, this particular NGO will be funded by people abroad since lcoals would see a square egg situation. They then go take some 'secret camera' pictures of women working in horrible conditions and send it to their sponsors who splash it on the network news.

Note that the point of these ambush attacks is not the welfare of the worker. It's the fact that the particular large corporation 'exploited' the workers. Of course Bob would not be exploiting the worker. Without the worker he would have some reason to exist wouldn't he.

Anyway one news storm later the company decides to have 'better working conditions'. Now it builds a spanking new factory with all kinds of facilities. Once you have a factory the bare minimum you need to provide in Malaysia is a prayer room, a canteen, and (i believe but may be wrong) some kind of industrial nurse.

Since the factory is probably not going to be in the village where Sally lives (what foreign or foreign educated local management type would want to drive all the way out to the boondocks) you are going to need to provide a factory bus or buses. Oh yeah and workers will demand unions (courtesy of Bob again) who will lobby for benefits and so forth. Pay scales will have to be standardized like pay scales (but less) in the home country of the various social activists. It doesn't matter how many pieces you produce. We pay by promotion.

At some point the working conditions in this factory become better, even better than those at local factories such as, for example, the biscuit factory down the road. Suddenly the biscuit factory finds that it can no longer find employees......they would rather work in the shoe factory where there is days off, prayer times etc.

Yet even the dismal local factory (at least by Bob's standards) seem to attract foreign labour. Since there is unemployment in the country, the government cannot officially allow so much foreign labour in. So once in a while the biscuit factory finds it premises raided and its workers carted off. Not surprisingly a little money slipped to the right hands ensures that all is forgiven. Foreign workers? Who cares, there's tons more where they came from.

Since these workers who come over are 'better' perhaps in skills or whatever. Sally now loses her job. Bob is of course still a happy camper since he has helped improve the lot of the sweat shop workers. It doesn't matter that the original workers he was so passionate about don't work there anymore. After all, these little Asian women all look the same to him.

Sally goes back to her old way of life where she is married to suffering and has no job to do even if she wanted to work. She dreams of the days when her home (yes the one which is worse than the sweat shop) will see the much needed money that her old job stitching shoes brought in. RM 100 for the school books of her child, RM 30 for his annual school fees, maybe RM 2 a day which would have bought him a simple meal in school. (1 USD = approx. 4 RM). Those were simple things when she had an honest job stitching shoes. Yes, the company did not let children work in the factory but at home, they helped her glue shoe parts together. It sure beat going out on the village streets. Things sure seemed better then. Her husband doesn't see the value of education since no one around them ever could get anywhere by going to school. Yet, when she had money he was fine with her spending it on the kids going to school.

When the company moved everything into a factory she couldn't really work there anyway. Who would take care of her children at home? She could keep an eye on them while stitching. Who would cook for her husband? She could cook and work in between. Food prices were also going up now because the government was convinced that people were getting richer.

They used to eat biscuits in the morning but somehow the prices of those had gone up too. Apparently biscuits now had to be bought from other countries because locals could no longer produce them. The last biscuit factory got closed down as the result of tougher immigration laws. The children now go to school without eating. Hopefully they get some free food from the school feeding program but that's hit and miss.

At least her life wasn't as bad as her neighbours. Her husband had run off with a foreign illegal (now legal since she's married). There seemed to be more foreigners these days even though they are being arrested every day

They worked for a lot cheaper than she did so she couldn't get back her old job washing dishes in the roadside stall.

Meanwhile the shoe company has decided that Malaysia is no longer cost justifiable. Bob has gone on to become a 'researcher' who works for an analyst who watches the shoe company. they provide research for ethical investors who feel particularly about labour conditions.

The NGO has gained many international awards for highlighting the plight of labour conditions in a third world nation. It is now moving on to highlight the plight of foreign illegals and their treatment in Malaysian detention.

Meanwhile Sally is preparing to celebrate the 15th Birthday of her son. At 15 all students take an examination. They have to decide soon if he should continue to go to school. After all, he can be a great help in his father's work which is to carry bricks at constructions sites. Apparently the economy is in trouble, many investors have left the nation. Work is scarce and another set of hands earning money is always welcome.

For Sally, there is no happy ending. A home where she worked, worse than a sweat shop. A sweat shop where she could have worked upgraded to become a now vacant factory. The rest of us meanwhile congratulate ourselves on how the world we live in is just all that much better.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Thanks again

Have a link over at

Thanks folks.