Sweat shops get a bad rap. Now, I’m not saying unfair wages and crappy working conditions are a great thing, but they certainly beat starvation. I know many Haitians who would love to have a chance to work at a sweatshop, even for one day. This little Jib Jab cartoon shows one side (the American side) of the story:
Exploitation of the poor through employing the third world for cheap labor makes goods cheap for Americans, but hurts the American economy in the long run by precipitating wide spread outsourcing. Once Americans have given all their jobs to the two thirds world so that they can buy “crap” cheaper, they will not have the jobs that would allow them the luxury of purchasing power. This is the fairly straight forward argumenf from Jib Jab.
Jib Jab is clearly taking a stab at the WalMarts and Targets of the world for their negative impact on local American economies. That WalMart kills local economies is pretty easily verifiable when you compare towns that have allowed the mega-corporation in to those who have not. You can see an in depth study of this phenomenon in the documentary film, “Wal-mart: The high cost of the low price”. American activists (including the makers of the Wal-Mart film) often point to the injustices of the pay scale and the working conditions in Mega-corporation factories in the two thirds world. This is the focus of much activism because it is the most visible means by which the corporate powers can be seen taking advantage of the poor. The activists will then turn to focus on the socio-economic harm that this does at home where the American poor are also exploited by getting shafted on pay, hours, and health bennies by the Mega-corp as employer. But if you look at the larger picture, the one that is missing from the conversation most of the time, these evil corporations (I don’t dispute the accusation that these are unethical, voracious, people-eating machines of greed), these mega-corps, are redistributing wealth to the world’s poor. Before the sweatshops and international trade, none of the industrial revolution’s spoils were going to the poor in most of the world. Now, there is a vast redistribution of wealth to some of the poorest parts of the globe through what is admittedly a large scale exploitation of cheap labor.
This redistribution has surely been part of the cause of American economic decline, but it has also meant manna in the desert for extremely poor nations. Not that my Haitian friends are any better off. Actually, American economic decline is terrible for Haiti, because Haiti doesn’t have many sweatshops. They are being left out on most of the factory work. Even the industries that used to employ Haitian laborers to stuff animals (Disney corp.), or stitch together most of the world’s baseballs (Wilson, etc.)are gone: those businesses all pulled out when political temperatures rose in Haiti. So Haiti survives mostly on generous contributions from Diaspora Haitians in Miami, Boston, and New York (Haitian cousins working for nothing at Wal-Mart) and from charitable organizations like ours and larger NGOs, like Unicef and World Vision, etc.. The charitable organizations are great, but Haiti wants what it has wanted for 200 years: independance, or even better, interdependence; a chance to provide something that the rest of the world could benefit from. But right now, 75% of Haiti is unemployed, and hoping that a sweat shop or two moves in.
So before you try to boycott Walmart for the sake of world harmony, think about the fact that when there are no “sweatshops” people have to find another way to put food on the table, and the alternative options to exploitative labor are usually MORE exploitative and dangerous forms of labor: Prostitution, sex tourism, drug trades, weapons smuggling, these are the kinds of exploitative powers that move in when Uncle Capitalist Greed doesn’t have an outpost in your back yard. We are in a crazy conundrum: Walmart culture is redsitributing middle class wealth to the desparately poor and to some eye-poppingly-wealth-laden corporate execs. It is polarizing wealth in the states and destroying the U.S. economy, while balancing and bolstering the economy in the world’s poorest nations. It is making China wealthier, which probably does not make the world any more safe. But it is also providing an alternative to sex-slavery, organized crime, and child relinquishment. The Mega-Corps need to change many practices and be careful about destroying the economies they create, but, by their very exploitative acts, they are also saving many people from a much more tormented existence.
So what am I getting at? Well, I’m writing this to illustrate that too much of what passes as activism or charity ignores complicated needs in the world. There are thousands of Haitian farmers out of business and now uninterested in tending their land because the free food aid in Haiti has made their produce unmarketable. There have been factories shut down in Haiti because of political advocacy for working conditions, with the sum result being hundreds of unemployed workers who now live in worse environments than they worked in and have to beg, borrow, and steal just to get by. I don’t think unraveling these problems is impossible, but I do think that loving the one in front of us sacrificially is more practical and effective than trying to bring down systems that we don’t fully understand. Structural evil has to be addressed and challenged, but from my perspective it is a rare activist that can do this in a way that doesn’t hurt others. But while the systems rise and fall and are challenged or self-implode, while global economies pulsate and shift, loving and helping those at the bottom is far more clear cut than “sticking it to the man”. The “man” is there because poverty is there. We just find it easier to hate a rich man than to love a poor person with our actual resources and energy. Most people who rail against how the mega-corps are exploiting human life try to put a stick in the spokes of the mega-corps rather than trying to meet the urgent needs of the poor that made them willing to exploit themselves as cheap laborers. The “machine” may need to be dismantled, but it needs to be done with caution, because its moving parts are human lives. And from my little corner, I wish that more of those moving parts were Haitians. Because if they are not in the machine, they are in the junk yard. I pray the machine bows its knee one day and is replaced by something with more love and humanity in it, but I also pray for jobs for Haiti’s poor. I encourage you to look for tags that say, “Made in Haiti”. You’ll find that they are rare.