Sweatshops Won’t Help the World’s Poor, but Unions Could

Influential liberals said low-paid manufacturing jobs would help the Global South. They were wrong then—and they’re especially wrong now.

There is good news for Bangladesh’s 4.5 million garment workers. On September 1, a global solidarity campaign won an extension to a landmark safety agreement, which will require more than 100 major brands to help reduce the likelihood of fires and building collapses in the factories that produce their clothing.

Two decades ago, influential American liberals believed that sweatshops in the Global South would help the world’s poor. Countries with no export industries, the argument went, could strengthen their economies, create jobs, and slowly move their way up the income ladder. Bangladesh’s experience over the past 20 years shows that the pro-sweatshop argument has failed. It’s true that the country’s garment factories are booming: Overseas clothing sales reached $33 billion by 2019, which made up 84 percent of total exports. But a closer look reveals wage stagnation, dangerous factory conditions, and little broad-based economic development. Despite the many years since its establishment, the garment industry has not helped push most Bangladeshis out of poverty. Clothing companies and a small Bangladeshi elite are still exploiting young garment workers, most of whom are women, to add to their profit margins.

An alliance of European unions, the courageous women who are at the forefront of Bangladesh’s labor movement, and international solidarity groups successfully fought to win the original Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, shortly after the Rana Plaza horror in April 2013, when 1,134 workers died in the rubble of an eight-story factory building north of Dhaka. The original deal was legally binding, requiring 200 international clothing brands to pay for widespread factory inspections and to blacklist local manufacturers who did not meet safety standards. That agreement worked, and there have been no more tragedies on the scale of Rana Plaza. That same global coalition pushed to make this new deal happen: two big European union federations, IndustriALL and UNI Global; local groups including the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity; and overseas organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign in Amsterdam and the Worker Rights Consortium in Washington, D.C.

But this month’s victory is only partial. The agreement, now called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, will expire after only two years. Major US brands—including Walmart, the Gap, and J.C. Penney—have declined to sign it. The number of signatories has also dropped from 200 to 103. Except for a brief report in The New York Times, the US mainstream media has largely ignored the deal’s extension.

The liberal argument that advocated for low-paid manufacturing jobs in the Global South emerged two decades ago and is most closely associated with New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Nicholas Kristof. It is best summarized by the headline on a September 2000 Kristof column (co-written with Sheryl WuDunn): “Two Cheers for Sweatshops.”

The Krugman/Kristof argument was simple. Both conceded that working conditions in sweatshops were often bad. But, they contended, there was no alternative; other work was even worse or nonexistent. Kristof, who is now considering a run for Oregon governor, found a laborer in Thailand who was thankful his 15-year-old daughter was working in a clothing factory, earning $2 for a nine-hour shift, six days a week.

The pro-sweatshoppers provoked a heated controversy, and the two responded by accusing their critics of being unrealistic. Krugman struck back directly: “You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative?” In a 2006 column from Windhoek, Namibia, Kristof provocatively told American college students “to stop trying to ban sweatshops, and instead campaign to bring them to the most desperately poor countries.” In 2009, he wrote from Phnom Penh, Cambodia: “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.”

Krugman and Kristof asserted that sweatshop jobs were the necessary first step on a ladder that led upward, toward balanced, broad development. Krugman, the more thoughtful of the two, wrote in 1997 that “the growth of manufacturing…has a ripple effect throughout the economy…rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.” Kristof wrote three years later that “sweatshops are a clear sign of the industrial revolution that is beginning to reshape Asia.” He noted that South Korea, Taiwan, and then China had started by sewing clothing, but then progressed toward more sophisticated, value-added products: cars, computer chips, and cell phones. He implied that nations like Bangladesh now had one foot on the ladder’s first rung, but would eventually leave the dirty low-paid jobs behind.

In fairness, this part of the Krugman/Kristof argument seemed plausible at the time. But over the past two decades, no other nation has followed South Korea, Taiwan, and China up the ladder. And meanwhile, the string of factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh and elsewhere has shown that sweatshop work is not merely low-paid; it can be deadly. Only global action, such as the just-signed extension, can protect workers.

Krugman and Kristof also did not fully reckon with what American union organizers call “the runaway shop.” Kalpona Akter, a former child garment worker who is now a prominent union leader in Bangladesh, points out that whenever workers press for wage increases and better conditions, corporations threaten to move their business elsewhere. The big brands are nimble because they do not actually own the garment factories; they source through sub-contractors and so have no local investments to lose. “When we ask for more pay, the owners bring up Ethiopia or Jordan,” Akter said.

Jasmin Malik Chua, the labor editor at Sourcing Journal, which covers the global garment industry, told me that there is nowhere in the Global South where garment workers make a “living wage.” The minimum wage in Bangladesh is $94 a month. “It is common for the factories to demand excessive overtime, more than 60 hours and seven days a week,” she said. “But even with the additional hours, workers aren’t paid enough, and they often have to rely on predatory lenders to meet their monthly expenses.”

Chua also explained that wages for garment workers amount to only between 1 and 3 percent of the final cost of our T-shirts and trousers. That means consumers in wealthy countries could spend slightly more on clothing and barely notice the difference. The scholars James Boyce and Betsy Hartmann lived in a poor Bangladeshi village in the mid-1970s and published their classic account of the experience, A Quiet Violence. Boyce told me, “Take an item of clothing that retails in the US for $15. Of that, let’s say 2 percent—30 cents—is going to the worker. Double that to 60 cents, and you could improve safety, raise wages, and transform the lives of millions of people.”

Chaumtoli Huq, an associate professor at CUNY Law School, has done extensive research among garment workers. (Her documentary film, Workers’ Voices, focuses on women union organizers, and is an intimate look inside the factories and the crowded living spaces.) Huq praised the extension of the Safety Accord, but made clear that it didn’t go far enough. “In my interviews, women workers regularly raise three demands,” she said. “They’re naturally concerned about workplace safety, but they also want to raise the dismally low wages and end the repression of their right to unionize.”

After 50,000 Bangladeshi workers struck in December 2018, the police cracked down violently, and the owners fired almost 12,000 people. (The New York Times, to its credit, editorialized against the repression.) Huq emphasized that unions are an indispensable element of factory safety. Survivors of the Rana Plaza collapse have cell phone photos that show how the interior factory walls had cracked the day before the disaster. Despite their hesitation, they say management forced them inside the next morning. An independent union could have protected them.

Krugman stopped writing much about sweatshops. By contrast, Kristof did continue to defiantly push his view through the 2000s—but after 2009, he seems to have gone silent. He was on leave when Rana Plaza collapsed, but he wrote nothing after he got back to the Times. And over the years, he hasn’t found his way to Bangladesh or anywhere else to interview the young women who make our clothing.

Krugman and Kristof were mainly wrong because they put their faith in a capitalist model to automatically raise living standards across the Global South. They, especially Kristof, also ignored the workplace danger to millions of garment workers, and they failed to see that ensuring labor rights across borders is crucial to enforcing even minimal standards of safety. Nor have the two influential columnists used their platforms to vigorously endorse global action.

Helping garment workers stay safe at work and earn a living wage will require new strategies, and the Bangladesh Safety Accord is showing the way. The world has profoundly changed since 1911, when the fire at New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 garment workers, most of them also young women. David Von Drehle’s compelling history of the Triangle disaster explains how labor activists and a shocked middle-class citizens’ movement mobilized immediately and pushed safety legislation through the New York State Legislature within two years. But the New York sweatshops were owned by locals, who could be pressured. Today, giant corporations like Walmart, whose profit was an astonishing $129 billion last year, can quickly move production to countries that still have lax regulations. (Walmart’s publicity department did not respond to a request for comment.)

Yet Walmart, Gap, and J.C. Penney are not invulnerable. Children used to work in garment factories in Bangladesh. I visited one in central Dhaka in 1991, and felt I had stumbled into a junior high school home economics class. Then, in 1992, Democratic Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa proposed legislation to ban imports made by children. The law was never passed, but union leaders in Bangladesh say it was enough to nearly end child labor in the industry. So at least there were no 11-year-olds among the Rana Plaza victims.

The Safety Accord includes a pledge to extend it to at least one other garment-producing country—although it is unclear how binding that provision will be. Huq told me Pakistan is most likely the next target. Eventually, though, she said that the campaign will have to challenge the big brands in their home nations. In the United States, the 1935 Wagner Act guaranteed American workers the right to unionize without losing their jobs. If Bangladesh’s parliament alone passed similar legislation, Walmart’s top managers would contact their suppliers in Cambodia and Myanmar and immediately shift their orders. “The only solution,” Huq said, “is to fight to require the brands to only source from supplier factories that are unionized—everywhere.”

Newspaper columns that promoted that campaign for justice would be worth three cheers.

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