January 16, 2009

"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 five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage."

Is that the image you have in mind when you see that the product you buy is made from recycled materials?

Meanwhile, the child dreams of a job in what we would call a sweatshop.


Expat(ish) said...

Potato(e), Potato(e), Sweat Shop, Opportunity, why don't we call the whole thing off?

It took years of arguing with my wife to get her to understand that $0.10/hour sounds terrible unless you understand the alternatives. My grandfather grew up on a farm in rural Louisiana (very rural - the 8 party phone line ran down the barbed wire fence) and when he got a house in the city he said he'd never touch anything green that wasn't on a salad plate. Farming stinks. Family farming is worse. Subsistence family farming is one of the inner circles of Dante's hell.

I think what turned my wife around was that I had an open position for a college leaver in India, salary was $2,300 USD plus benefits. We got over 1K applicants from the employment agency we used for pre-screening. The woman I hired was excited because she could live in an apartment with three other girls and send money home to pay for her siblings education AND buy a scooter.

Bing my wife's lightbulb went off.

Now when we see some idiot journalist (but I repeat myself) talking about "slave wages" and "inequality" in a Nike factory my wife mutters: "probably had fifty thousand people offering bribes for that job." Because, yes, it is that much better than the village.

I will say that the US companies and their outsourcers do have a moral obligation to provide a safe workplace and to do as much better for the local environment as is possible. In India, for example, you could never run a really US clean and safe factory, but you can do better than the norm. And should.


PS - Am not saying trash picking is good, just putting some perspective on globalization in general.

Original George said...

Zabaleen of Cairo. Video.

Mostly Copts (Christians), as they are the oppressed minority in Egypt.

The extraordinary story of Father Sama'an at Muqattam Mountain, home of St. Simon the Tanner Coptic Orthodox Church in the garbage village. It's the largest church in the Middle East. It's underground. Seats maybe 20,000.

author, etc. said...

I found the Kristof article striking in its specific point that "sweatshop" in itself is a relative evil in the vein of "one man's ceiling is a another man's floor." But also the article had power as a general reminder that life is complicated and that smug all-knowingness from either the Left or the Right has zero application in the real world.

Pogo said...

Plastic bottles, hell.

A man I knew from Thailand once told me that the American rules against sweat shops were directly responsible for the sex trade involving very young girls and boys. He smiled alot, but he harbored ill feelings toward the US for it, and rightly so.

Dire, grinding poverty has been the fate of man since we first stood up on our spindly limbs. Real multiculturalism would account for it, but instead applies 21st Western standards on a people barely up to 1890 rural Wyoming.

Liberal piety is a terribly destructive force.

Bissage said...

It’s become a cliché to say “this too shall pass.”

When I was 8 or 10 I overheard one of my uncles say something that deserves to be repeated just as often.

“No matter how bad you’ve got it, someone’s got it worse.”

That’s kind of a downer.

Expat(ish) said...

@Bissage - maybe it was to make you thankful for what you have?

When my grandfather married my grandmother (before she was my grandmother, obviously) he had to promise her indoor water. Not an indoor bathroom, not running water, just indoor water. So their first rental house had a pump next to the sink and a dunny out back. She loved him for 70 years for that.

It's all relative. Enjoy what you got.


Bissage said...


I'd been eavesdropping.

My uncle had been bawling to my father about his marital problems and that's what he said as he was regaining his composure.

That truism, like just about everything else we think, feel, say and do, will only get you so far.

Tibore said...

Picking through garbage dumps happens in the Philippines too. But there, I'd attribute it more to corrupt local politicians stifling the economic sector than any liberal crusading closing factories. Still, though, for what manufacturing capacity exists in the Philippines, I wouldn't want a westerner to campaign against it just because it doesn't meet his or her notion of what "fair" is supposed to mean. Argue fairness on what the merits are in the context of the society in question. Not the American or European standard. Ours are two of the riches societies in the world. I don't like sweatshops either, but if it's a step towards a better life for people, then the goal should be to get to, and then past that point as quickly as possible. Not to prevent forward progress.

At the same time, it's fair to say that much of the problem in other counties is due at least in part to the local governments and elites. So while I wouldn't want to see the sort of empty, western-elite's conscience-assuaging acts I've heard about (didn't some Hollywood star go overseas to a factory to hand out money once? Sheesh...), I still would want foreign pressure on local governments and elites in those nations to treat workers fairly. There are ways to do that that doesn't shut the factory down or penalize the workers themselves. Positive examples from the west help; so does pressure to move in the right direction, instead of overly self-righteous indignation at the problems.

This is slightly off topic, and some will view it as provocative to boot, but it's a fair question: While divestiture from South Africa during the apartheid era is widely credited with helping bring an end to the practice, how many workers - many black - paid the price for this practice in lost jobs and income? I recall reading at the time that a majority of South African black people, while welcoming the international pressure, opposed the economic proposal because it would hurt them as well as the apartheid practitioners. I'm having a bit of difficulty finding information online that's not overly self-congratulatory about the practice; here's one link - http://www.springerlink.com/content/x54465558t411771/ - and it's a scholarly work to boot, but it's also not cheap. At any rate, I'm wondering what actual figures lay beneath the dominant narrative of divestiture's success in South Africa. And that brings us back to the original topic here: What acts help the poor in countries like Cambodia? And what acts hurt? The cliche of road to hell, good intentions should be foremost in anyone's mind who advocates acts like divestiture, or holds attitudes like the ones Kristof targets in the article Professor Althouse linked.

Ann Althouse said...

@Bissage, my mother's typical response to any complaint was: "Well, if that's the worst thing that ever happens to you..."

... = you're lucky.

Richard Dolan said...

It's odd that Kristof's moving account generates a lot of cliches as a response: liberal pieties, good intentions/unintended consequences, be thankful for what you've got. The lives of the garbage-pickers are so awful to imagine that the process of averting one's eyes may well need some such well-worn mental ruts to ease the way. I don't have anything better to offer.

Pogo said...

It's not ignoring, Richard.

Some clichés are actually true.

One is: You can't fix the world.
Some people have horrid lives and you can't do a damn thing about it. It's arrogant to believe otherwise, and usually deleterious to act on that belief.

traditionalguy said...

We have had many references to the religious world these last few Blog Days, but one more if you don't mind:The cultures based on Buddha and his teachings on how to attain the best life for all, which is to become nothing, really do not see anything wrong in this picture. No one should interfere with these kid's Karma. That is why properly practised Christianity seeks out and ministers to all of God's beloved humans whose life goal is seen, instead, to become a member of a world wide loving family. That may only seem to be a scary superstition to you, but it does save people in day to day practice all over the world.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Looking at the world through the prism of our own (blessedly wealthy and healthy) society and judging the people in history through our own cultural values has been and still is the biggest failing of the liberal leftists.

The example of the latter that comes to mind is trying to demonize Jefferson because slavery was in existance during his lifetime. I lived in Mexico when I was younger and was keenly aware that what would be considered a really great house/car/life there would be considered extreme poverty in the U.S.

You can't judge others and magically remake the world in our image, while we lounge in our ivory towers wrapped in luxuries that others can't even dream of. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try....but the left needs to get some perspective and be aware of the unintended consequences of their misplaced idealism (sex slaves in Thailand, the destruction of the economy and genocide in Africa)

knox said...

Sorry, capitalism is simply not allowed to help people, only socialism. If evidence shows that capitalism is helping people, it must be thwarted.

PatCA said...

Along the same lines, the eco-nuts have drawn a no-drill line around the United States because we....what, don't want to impede a rich guy's ocean view, or kill a bunch of birds with an occasional oil spill? However, it's perfectly okay to allow other countries to ruin their environments and then put their oil into big tankers and drag it over to the US.

Personally, the thought of all those pristine sand dunes ruined by oil rigs in Saudi Arabia brings little tears to my eyes.

Henry Buck said...


Idealism, though, is not at heart about helping others, it is about contructing a positive view of the self.

m00se said...

The thing is:

You can't stop trying to change the world, but you have to stop expecting to be able to change the world.

The hardest part is to be able to keep your perspective. Liberals tend to be very linear about progress, and expect that we can "fix" everything, in time.

Conservatives have a very firm view regarding the falliblity of man, and do what they can, but don't expect to be able to fix it all.

jdeeripper said...

"The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth..."

I don't need to go to Cambodia for that when I can read Dowd/Herbert/Krugman and Rich at the NYTimes.

commenter said...

I know that when i traveled to Turkey it was off season and all the tourists were gone. Despite the lack of traffic, still there was the ladies' bazaar of women with yarn crafts and jewelry making selling their goods. I stopped at the booth of an old women who didn't speak any English, but since i know both knitting and crocheting, between numbers and colors and actions and laughing we understood each other to some degree. I just paid what they asked. Someone said i should have bartered and gotten the thing for less. I just thought, "gads, this would have taken me hours and hours to make and i am only paying her $13?"

Another instance, was the very young girl selling flowers she had picked to people walking up the streets. I was told, though, if everyone buys these flowers from these five years olds that there parents actually thing it is better to get the money then go to school. They might end up keeping them from school. Actually, if I ever in my live get there again, I thought it might be nice to take a tiny picture dictionary in English and trade the flowers for the books. Maybe that's a waste, maybe that isn't. I haven't figured out the consequences of such action or if such would even be useful.

So i guess you have to decide how you are gonna change the world with your dollars even one little girl or little ol lady at a time.

the very young, or the very old dancing on the earth for their short while

blake said...


Might want to brush up on your understanding of Karma in Buddhism.

Freeman Hunt said...

Complaining about "sweatshop" labor is very much in vogue around here, here being near the home office of Wal-Mart. People do not get it. They talk about how awful it is that people work cheaply in these factories and then you ask them, "Or what?"
"Companies should have to have the same standards there that they have here."
"But then they won't put any factories there, and those people will have nothing at all. The wages seem very low to you, but those people need them. Without them, they would live in total squalor. Plus, if you enforced American labor standards on the whole world, the cost of everything would skyrocket, and the standard of living for poor people in developed countries would plummet as well."

They don't care. It's all about the appearance and feeling of caring, not the facts of empirical evidence. In fact, love or hatred of Wal-Mart is practically a litmus test for whether or not someone actually cares about real poor people or just wants to appear and feel as though he does.

Jeremy said...

That's not a very charitable view of the other side. I think it's reasonable to decry awful conditions in foreign factories while at the same time recognizing that those awful conditions are better than none at all. Furthermore, it's reasonable to think that those conditions could be substanially improved without "the cost of everything skyrocket[ing]".

There's got to be something in between the status quo and UAW standards. Do you really want to be in the position of arguing that a 5-cent per hour raise hike or an extra 15 minute work break would devastate Walmart and the entire Western economy?

Freeman Hunt said...

Jeremy, that's not what I'm arguing, and that's not what they're arguing for. You have people who have no idea what the economies of these other countries are like saying things like, "Two dollars a day is absurd!" Would they find three dollars less absurd? I doubt it. They're just having an emotional reaction to numbers that sound low.

I'm all for improving working conditions. Improved working conditions are exactly what people will get as more companies move in and they have to compete for workers. You won't get improved conditions by discouraging economic expansion in these countries.

Methadras said...

From the home page, I read the description of this article and the first thought that entered my mind was, "Hey, why is someone talking about New Jersey?"