I am plowing my way through the August 23 New York Times Magazine - the one with the theme Saving the World's Women, that was inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. I am really interested in the Girl Effect - namely, the idea that we can best make an impact on the world by investing in the health, education and empowerment of girls and women. Unfortunately, with the chaos that has been swirling around my home and family for the last month, I am finding it hard to get through all the articles.
Anyway....last week I was reading the excerpt from the book that was included in the Magazine, and there was a quote that stopped me dead in my tracks: "The only thing worse than being employed in a sweatshop is not being employed in a sweatshop."
I've been thinking about that one all weekend. I guess I can see the point that at least women who work in sweatshops (and it is almost ALWAYS women) have some money as opposed to none, which is a start. I guess that, when the other options are things like prostitution and being beaten and raped by your husband, a sweatshop might not be so bad.
But still...it just doesn't sit right with me.
If we refuse to purchase items made in sweatshops, are we taking money out of the pockets of poor women, who inevitably invest their earnings in the education and well-being of their children? If we accept that sweatshop employment is the lesser of two evils, and choose to purchase items made there, how do we advocate for the rights of the women who work there to be treated fairly, to be paid a living wage, to have reasonable hours and safe conditions? Perhaps if we boycott these products, then employers will offer them better pay and better treatment, which is still way less expensive than in more developed countries. Or, are we just lowering the bar, so that employers will offer their workers even less in order to maintain a profit margin?
Are we right to take work away from desperate women, women who may (or may not) consider a meal and a roof to be adequate compensation for eighty hours a week at a sewing machine when compared to their other alternatives?
ACCURATE INFORMATION OVERLOAD!!!
I am not saying that these conditions are fair, or acceptable. Personally, I think that the more we speak up, the more visibility we give to the issue, and the more we pressure employers to treat their workers fairly, the better off those workers will be. However, I do have to admit that coming from Kristoff and WuDunn, who worked in Asia for years among these people, the idea that sweatshops might actually be elevating the position of women did give me pause.