Sweatshops make poor people better off

Sweatshops are awful places to work. But they are often less awful than other jobs sweatshop workers could take. And this is the basic argument in defence of sweatshops. When people argue against them, the question we should ask is: “Compared to what?”.

Most evidence suggests that sweatshops pay better than the alternatives. It’s hard to collect reliable data in many poor countries, but Ben Powell and David Skarbek’s 2006 paper “Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards” uses wage data given by anti-sweatshop campaigners­ to estimate wages for sweatshop workers in ten countries compared to average National Income. This, if anything, should underestimate sweatshop workers’ earnings.

Again, it’s difficult to know how many hours the average sweatshop worker does every week, but most anti-sweatshop campaigners suggest that it is more than 70 hours per week. The results should be taken with a pinch of salt, but Powell and Skarbek found that sweatshop wages exceed average income in between eight and ten out of ten countries surveyed, depending on how many hours were worked.

In nine out of ten countries, “working ten-hour days in the apparel industry lifts employees above (and often far above) the $2 per day threshold.” And “in half of the countries it results in earning more than three times the national average”! (Powell’s defence of sweatshops, here, is excellent. His book on the topic is self-recommending.)


Critics of sweatshops point to the 1,000+ people killed and 2,500+ people injured by the collapse of the Rana Plaza sweatshop in Bangladesh in 2013. This was indeed grotesque, and evidence of the poor conditions that many sweatshop workers have to work in.

But what is their next-best alternative? Subsistence farming still dominates many of the countries that sweatshops operate in – in Vietnam, 59% of workers are self-employed in farming; 1.5% work for businesses owned partially or fully by foreign firms. And farming – particularly subsistence farming – is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that agricultural workers suffer 250 million accidents every year, and say that in some countries the fatal accident rate is twice as common in agriculture as in other industries. “Out of a total of 335,000 fatal workplace accidents worldwide,” say the ILO, “there are some 170,000 deaths among agricultural workers.” As horrendous as the Rana Plaza incident was, anti-sweatshop campaigners have not shown that sweatshops are more dangerous than sweatshop workers’ next-best alternative.

Sweatshops seem to have good impacts on women in particular. A study by researchers at the Universities of Washington and Yale that I blogged about last year looked at different villages in Bangladesh – some close to sweatshops, some not.

In the villages close to sweatshops, girls were substantially less likely to get pregnant or be married off (28% and 29% respectively, and this effect was strongest among 12-18 year olds) and girls’ school enrolment rates were 38.6% higher. The authors say that these effects were likely due to a combination of wealth effects (richer families need to marry off their daughters less early, and can afford to send their daughters to school for longer) and the fact that garment factory jobs reward skills, increasing the value of education.

And what do workers themselves think of sweatshops, given not just wages but other non-monetary compensation as well? Using field interviews with thirty-one sweatshop workers in El Salvador, David, Emily, Brian and Erin Skarbek found that “workers perceive factory employment to provide more desirable compensation along several margins.”

This is not to condemn all work done ‘against’ sweatshops. Using data from Indonesia, the World Bank’s Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse found that 1990s campaigns to improve conditions for sweatshop workers in the developing world seem to have led to real wage increases without significant unemployment effects, though some smaller factories did close.

The lesson here may be that work that focuses on improving wages and conditions for sweatshop workers, not closing down sweatshops and trying to wash our hands altogether, may be the best approach. Persuading consumers to continue buying things from sweatshops, but to pay a higher price to give those workers a better wage, might be a decent way of essentially ‘bundling’ a charitable donation into a normal purchase. Unfortunately, most campaigns in Britain seem to be straightforwardly anti-sweatshop.

And even the most noble-seeming campaigns can backfire. UNICEF argues that early 1990s campaigns to reduce child labour in Bangladesh’s formal economy led to children looking for income in much worse places: stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution.

It is understandable that anti-poverty campaigners find sweatshops appalling, and work done to improve conditions in sweatshops might be valuable, but too often people forget that blunt campaigns against sweatshops probably end up hurting people. Instead, people should use the awfulness of sweatshops – and even greater awfulness of other jobs – as proof that we need to do more, much more, to give better options to poor people in other countries.

One option might be guest worker programmes, targeted at people from the poorest countries in the world, to allow them to come and work in the developed world so that they can send more money back home for investment. And lower trade barriers to goods from poor countries would help them grow, too.

Sweatshops are particularly horrifying because they make us feel complicit in the suffering of the poor. They are not a good option, but they are the least bad option currently available to many people. Washing our hands of the situation and just closing the sweatshops would make their workers worse off, potentially much worse off. If we want to help people, we should give them new options, not take away existing ones.

An alternative for Greece

Three years ago I led an ASI team to compete for the Wolfson prize on leaving the Euro in an orderly manner. We got “close but no cigar”, hearing informally that we made it into the top dozen out of over 600 entries. The current position is more chaotic than anything imagined at the time of the competition, with several overlapping institutional problems.

  • The Greeks need relief and devaluation. Neither is possible under the Eurosystem which they also say they want. They are going to have to choose. Meanwhile, it is unrealistic to expect Tsipras or any Greek government to reverse 170 years of political dysfunction and collect income taxes from tomorrow morning. They can, however, place asset sales with an outside body and (more or less) collect VAT.
  • The Eurogroup (to simplify divergent inclinations) wants to keep the Euro immaculate, that is free of defection or conspicuous violations of its own rules, where they’re fast running out of wiggle room. Policy-makers also fear that further concessions will inflame populism in the other PIIGS, especially Spain where Podemos is leading the pack into the autumn elections. All in all, these objectives contradict each other, leaving the Eurogroup rudderless.
  • The ECB and other official European creditors fear a “haircut” (reduction) on the “principal” (headline sum borrowed). This couldn’t be airbrushed off their balance sheets – unlike grace periods, reduced “coupons” (interest payments), extended payment periods and so on. This makes it hard for creditors to take a lead.
  • For much of the Greek crisis, the IMF has given the impression of dancing to the ECB’s tune. At long last, it now seems to be manning up – none too soon, as it has risked its standing in the face of future defaults in “sovereigns” (state issued debt). It still needs to establish clear policy distance from the Bank, which should be taken to have relinquished its standing as an official creditor by “enabling” (as they say in AA) a defaulter.

This adds up to a catastrophic failure of leadership. Thus the following proposal, an exchange instrument which enables the IMF to take back the lead it should never have relinquished, grants Greece relief, and spares the creditors the worst by giving them a share in recovery.

  1. First, the IMF must reinforce its recent shows of independence, seeing off the ECB’s claim of pari passu priority as an official creditor. It must insist that the Bank joins with other creditors in a 50% plus haircut on the nominal value of its holdings of Greek debt or “old paper”. The Greeks themselves have spoken of 30%, following the Fund last week. This is unlikely to be enough for medium-term sustainability. There may also be some malarkey as between private and official creditors. The pain for official balance sheets is less than the nominal haircut as they bought much of their holdings at market discounts; it will be also abated by (4).
  2. Old paper is to be swapped for an exchange instrument or “new paper” with a nominal value reflecting the haircut. This is to be denominated in hard currency, unregistered and negotiable at par for tax payments to the Greek Government. This makes for a liquid secondary market and sets a floor for the value.
  3. New paper is to be undefeased (guaranteed by a third party); but is part-collateralised by (and part-redeemed by the proceeds of) early sales of Greek publicly owned assets under the control of a body answering to creditors. No guarantor is available for defeasement, with the US Treasury uninvolved and the ECB compromised. The asset sales would be the €51bn identified in 2010, of which less than €5bn has been realised; and would underwrite between one quarter and one third of the new paper.
  4. The coupon is to vary with increases in (and defrayed by a first call upon) VAT receipts above a threshold. This follows the precedent of the Paris Club (ie, for private holders of defaulted sovereigns); guarantees the coupon and offers upside to those taking the new paper.

This proposal enables the IMF to resume its proper role after sovereign defaults, that is leading the workouts. It also gives Greece and its people the breathing space they need and helps out the country’s creditors with a share in the improvement in Greece’s economy.


We need to get this right about what the Millennium Development Goals have achieved

It’s absolutely and gloriously true that these recent decades have seen the largest reduction in absolute poverty in the history of our species. But we need to work out why this is so, so that we can go and do more of that lovely stuff that reduces absolute poverty. And this isn’t the answer:

The millennium development goals (MDGs) have driven “the most successful anti-poverty movement in history” and brought more than a billion people out of extreme penury, but their achievements have been mixed and the world remains deeply riven by inequality, the UN’s final report on the goals has concluded.

This is not true. This is to confuse correlation with causality. The MDGs have been around for a time, yes, and they correlate with some of that reduction in poverty. But the actual decline in poverty, the one of those MGD’s that was achieved ahead of target, has not been driven by the MDGs. In fact, far from varied chuntering on at the UN being responsible for the reduction in poverty it’s been the ignoring of said chuntering that has.

The two things that have led to this vast, and highly welcome, reduction in poverty are the economic development of China and the Washington Consensus. Both, really, being governments getting out of the way and allowing the natural propensity to truck and barter to assert itself. We can in fact prove this in two ways.

The first being that the reduction in poverty hasn’t been happening where the UN has been dipping its greasy mitts, it’s been in those places that have been taking part in globalisation. Secondly, the reduction in poverty started before, predates, even the consideration of those MDGs let alone their adoption and anyone doing anything directly about them.

This matters because of course, given the success they are crowing about here, they want to make another set of goals. And the correct goal should be to do more of what worked last time, not whatever comes about as a result of the chuntering of the bureaucrats.

What did work last time is that the rich world finally started buying things made by poor people in poor countries. Thus we should do more of this: more globalisation in short. And given that the bureaucrats, the UN, and their targets had almost nothing to do with it all the best thing we should set them as targets is that they should shut up, go home, and let the rest of us get on with making our fellow humans richer.

As we have been and as we’ll all continue to do as long as no one interferes.

Which aid is worthwhile?

In the second edition of “How to Win Every Argument” I introduce 12 new fallacies, one of which is the False Zero Sum Game.  This is the fallacy of supposing something to be in fixed supply when it is not.  Some suppose that if some countries are to grow richer, others must become poorer.  In fact wealth is not in fixed supply; it can be created.

Another fallacy I did not include is the inverse of this one, where people suppose an unlimited supply of something limited.  Given that countries will not allocate the whole of their GDP to foreign aid, a limited aid budget is available.  The question is “How can it be spent most effectively?”  One answer is that supplied by the Copenhagen Consensus established by Bjorn Lomborg.  Distinguished economists meet every 4 years to assess how to prioritize limited funds.  Its rigour has earned it a reputation for fairness.

In an article published a year ago, Matt Ridley described how Lomborg handed the UN Open Working Group slips of paper representing worthwhile projects and had them place them in order of priority.  They were startled, coming from a mindset that “everything is important.”  Lomborg then had 60 economists calculate the cost-effectiveness of different targets, and list their likely benefits:

1.  Every dollar spent on reducing malnutrition yields $59 in benefits.  Better fed, children’s learning improves and they become more productive members of society.

2.  A dollar spent combating malaria and tuberculosis brings $35 in gains.  These diseases cause sickness that reduces the ability to do productive work.

3.  A dollar spent fighting HIV brings $11 in returns, and so on.

By contrast, each dollar spent on programmes to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius brings only 2 cents in benefits.

In his article Ridley lists his own top priorities, adding boosting preprimary education, which he suggests might return $30 per dollar spent.  He suggests that universal access to sexual and reproductive health would save mothers’ lives and lower birthrates, yielding perhaps $150 per dollar spent on it.  Finally Ridley suggests that expanding free trade could deliver “phenomenal improvements to the welfare of the poor in surprisingly quick time.”  “A successful Doha Round of the WTO could deliver annual benefits of $3 trillion for the developing world by 2020, rising to $100 trillion by the end of the century.”

It is a rewarding discipline to compare the effectiveness of different projects, and to explore which ones would do most good with the limited funds.  It has the potential to make aid more effective at achieving worthwhile goals.

Misconceptions about Europe

Madsen has written a think piece listing seven common misconceptions about Europe that are certain to feature in the referendum debate.  They are:

  • The EU is “Europe”

  • If the UK leaves, it will, like Norway, have to follow rules it cannot help shape

  • That the UK has not lost sovereignty, only pooled it with other EU members

  • That the EU membership involves sacrificing some sovereignty in return for substantial economic growth

  • That huge numbers of UK jobs would disappear if the UK left the EU

  • That foreign investment into Britain would cease without EU membership

  • That special interests (such as universities and farmers) could not manage without the EU grants they receive

Madsen concludes:

It is quite possible that Mr Cameron will secure an advantageous deal from his EU colleagues that allows the UK to protect its sovereignty while enjoying a vigorous trading relationship with its partners.  If he does, the British people might well vote to accept that deal.  It will be better for the debate leading up to that vote, however, if the above misconceptions about the Europe and the EU are laid to rest.

You can read the full text of his piece here.