Any Job Is a Good Job? Think Again

I'm always amazed to come across opinion pieces that claim sweatshops are good for workers. The argument goes: people in poor countries need jobs, and sweatshops provide jobs, and if anything, it's culturally incompetent of Westerners to insist on the sort of working conditions we demand in the developed world. Any job is a good one in the developing world... but they don't mention whether or not there are minimum standards that a job should meet.

This is a pretty massive oversight. At Verité, we have met thousands of people, representative of millions of others, whose experience in sweatshops has not enriched them, but rather impoverished and scarred them. Without some way of distinguishing a good job from a bad job, these people will forever more face exploitation by "business people" who aim to enrich themselves.

There are centuries of proof that jobs that are created without respect to ethical or legal standards do not make workers or societies more prosperous. December's factory fire in Bangladesh, where 20 people died, proves the point dramatically. Recent reports from India -- one of them our "Help Wanted," and one forthcoming from Anti-Slavery International -- demonstrate the tremendous risks that poor Indian girls take to get a job sewing t-shirts under the "Sumangali Scheme," and the ways in which their gambles do not pay off. These adolescents work for years in hopes of a lump sum payment at the end -- and in the meantime suffer hazards from chemicals, long-hours and predatory supervisors.

Those who claim that any job is better than no job should talk to some of the workers we've met. They should explain how they're going to determine how much a company should pay a worker, or whether that worker deserves payment at all. They should identify whether or not slavery is acceptable (after all, the worker gains valuable skills, even if she isn't paid, right?). And at what age children should be able to go to work.

Luckily for the pro-sweatshop crowd, there are already widely accepted ways of deciding whether a job is good enough, and whether kids are acceptable employees, so they won't have to think too hard about these complicated problems. These are the international standards of the International Labor Organization -- jointly agreed to by employers, governments and trade unions -- and the Codes of Conduct adopted by almost every self-respecting multinational in the world (and many of their suppliers).

And if you believe that "any job is a good job," does that mean even an illegal job? After all, no one really has a choice about doing business ethically, because these ethical standards are the rule of law in almost every country in the world. Do pro-sweatshoppers think that legal standards shouldn't be implemented? Where that's the case, those in power (factory owners, managers, supervisors, corrupt regulators, etc.) can and do claim as much of the revenue pie as they can, cheating workers out of their wages, cutting corners on worker safety, and all manner of other tactics that middle-class and white-collar workers would never abide.

Let's move beyond this artificial divide between those who think jobs are good, and those who think sweatshops are bad. At Verité, we too believe that jobs in poor countries are the best way to reduce poverty. There is no substitute for work, on a massive scale, that delivers tangible benefits to poor people. The global economy can provide great opportunities to poor workers and harvesters. At the same time, we know that if businesses don't follow ethical and legal standards poor people will continue to be poor, no matter how hard they work.

When they earn decent wages, poor Chinese, Indians or Ghanaians will spend the additional revenue on productive, even life-changing goods and services -- food, better education for their kids, health care, and childcare. And meanwhile, there is no evidence that anti-sweatshop campaigns depress employment as a level large enough to change the nature of a society's economy.

We have only to look to our own national experience to see the flaws in the pro-sweatshop logic: In the US and the UK, it wasn't the replication of sweatshops that made our country rich. It was the reaction of labor unions, governments, financiers, social workers, consumers and others to sweatshop abuses that brought about social protections, and a greater distribution of income emerged.

We must continue to hold companies accountable for the working conditions of people who sew, build and harvest for them at the bottom of their supply chains. Buying a t-shirt made in a sweatshop may give a worker a job, but it won't help that worker as much as if they enjoy safe working conditions, fair wages and freedom.

Jobs are essential, and so are protections. The result will be stronger economies, less poverty and greater social stability.

Dan Viederman is the CEO of Verité, the global NGO committed to ensuring that people in factories and farms work under safe, fair and legal conditions.