My initial stance on the sweatshop debate was in agreement with Pietra Rivoli’s argument that sweatshops constitute a “race to the bottom” by which wages are driven down so low that the standard of living for those working in sweatshops also dramatically decrease. Not only can this process and byproduct of sweatshops be considered inhumane, but the perpetual and continual “race to the bottom creates economic and social inequality within the host country through the exploitation of its workers.
As a result, those who own the sweatshops and transnational corporations continue to gain wealth while wages are driven lower and lower for sweatshop workers and the country’s middle class continues to shrink.
A notable example mentioned in class of the devastating effects that come with a deteriorating middle class is that of China, where so many people are being pushed out of the middle class into somewhat of a “sweatshop” standard of living, they are not able to contribute or invest back into the economy, hence the growing number of “ghost towns” currently in China.
Despite my previous argument, through our recent readings and discussions about the effect sweatshops have on countries, it has been made clear that they tend to promote countries to “move up the value chain” while also helping the development of countries in unexpected ways. Rivoli even argues that ” …some of the most advanced economies in the world today…show a common heritage in the cotton mill and the sweatshop as the ignition switch for the urbanization, industrialization, and economic diversification that followed, as well as for the economic and social liberation of women from the farm” (Rivoli 2009, 118-119).
In addition, through the New York Times article by Kristof and WuDunn titled Two Cheers for Sweatshops, it can be seen though empirical examples that sweatshops really do constitute an important way that helps countries move up the value chain. The authors discuss how the father of a sweatshop worker praises the pay in which his daughter earns at a sweatshop (Kristof and WuDunn 2000, 1). Furthermore, he is deeply concerned about rumors going around that the sweatshop might close and fears that his daughter will not find another comparable opportunity if she loses her job (Kristof and WuDunn 2000, 1). The authors go on to say that “The truth is, those grim factories in Dongguan and the rest of southern China contributed to a remarkable explosion of wealth. In the years since our first conversations there, we’ve returned many times to Dongguan and the surrounding towns and seen the transformation” (Kristof and WuDunn 2000, 3).
In addition to this compelling data, Kristof and WuDunn argue that all of these aforementioned factors have actually spurred the creation of what could become a thriving middle class in China. Despite the nationalistic perspectives and lobbying that hold somewhat of a valid argument, of which I, too, initially argued for when we began the sweatshop discussion, Rivoli concisely summarized the irrational position that these individuals and groups are taking. She says, “But of all the rallying cries of the anti-globalization movement, the call to “stop the race to the bottom” is both the scariest and the most nonsensical, especially when it comes from rich country activists who owe their own prosperity to the very race they wish to halt for others” (Rivoli 2009, 119). It is largely because of sweatshops that so many prosperous and rich nations have been able to achieve the level of success that they have, but it must be understood that this gradual climb up the value chain can take certain countries decades, and some will unjustly highlight the negative aspects along the way.