Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A shameful embrace of sweatshops in a book on oppression of women

In their new best-selling book, “Half the Sky,” two New York Times writers, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, make an eloquent appeal for ending the worldwide oppression of women. Unfortunately, they mar their case by arguing that sweatshops are actually good for women.

“Sweatshops have given women a boost,” they write. They acknowledge “inequities of garment factories – and they are real – the forced overtime, the sexual harassment, the dangerous conditions.” But, they argue, sweatshop jobs are preferable to hoeing fields all day back in the home village.

In most of their book, Kristof and WuDunn recount shocking examples of how women in many countries suffer as 21st century slaves. Still, some women do not remain passive. They stand up and fight against the prevailing culture of oppression and, against all odds, make progress, often with outside help from non-governmental organizations (and sometimes from Kristof personally).

Yet “Half the Sky” fails to recognize the many courageous initiatives of factory workers in Indonesia and some other countries to improve their lot. In fighting against extreme abuses, these young women, too, welcome all thw support they can get from anti-sweatshop groups in the United States and Europe, whose citizens buy the T-shirts, dolls, and other consumer goods the women make.

In a long endnote, the co-authors point out that “a feminist critique…has emerged to dispute our arguments,” a critique that “contains an element of truth.” For this very limited insight into reality, Kristof and Dubunn rely completely on feminist sources, as the endnote makes clear. Too bad that they didn't interview a few sweatshop workers. If they had done so, their insights might have been substantially less limited.

In the latest of his periodic efforts to discredit the anti-sweatshop cause, Kristof goes so far to recycle a 15-year-old rumor saying:

-- that after Senator Tom Harkin in 1993 introduced a bill (never passed) to ban the import of goods made by girls and boys under 14, Bangladesh garment owners “promptly fired tens of thousands of these young girls,' and
-- that “many of them ended up in brothels and are presumably now dead of AIDS.”

This story pops up regularly in articles opposing the use of trade legislation to improve labor standards (the point about the children dying of AIDS is a new wrinkle). I personally know two researchers, one a Bangladeshi, who have devoted extensive efforts to verify this old story but have discovered no evidence to support it.

“Half of the Sky” offers this recommendation: “Instead of denouncing sweetshops, we in the West should be encouraging manufacturing in poor country.” The implied assumption -- that the anti-sweatshop movement discourages manufacturing in poor countries – is false.

Here’s one example, reported at length by Steven Greenhouse in the November 18 New York Times.

Soon after workers in a Honduras factory unionized, Russell Athletic, one of the country’s leading sportswear companies, closed the plants, making 1,200 workers jobless. That was a flagrant violation of the company’s licensing agreements.

Gearing up quickly, the United Students against Sweatshop launched a nationwide campaign in which, among other things, more than 100 colleges and universities agreed to sever or suspend their licensing agreements with Russell. Finally, over the September 14-15 weekend, Worker Rights Consortium, a USAS sister organization, signed a landmark agreement with Russell under which Russell will

-- reopen the Honduras factory with 1,200 rehired workers.
-- open another plant in Honduras to be covered by a union contract.

Moises Alvarado, president of the union at the closed plant, told the New York Times: “For us, it was very important to receive the support of the universities. We are impressed by the social conscience of the students of the United States.”

As its epigraph, “Half the Sky” uses the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” Ignoring the world’s oppressed female garment workers from a large fraction of that half is a blunder and a scandal.

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