Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Poverty & Sweatshops - All Is Not As It Seems

The paradox of sweatshops is this: they are pretty grim places, so lots of people want to see them discontinued. Yet discontinuing them frequently brings about an even grimmer situation for the people working in them, meaning that the people claiming the greatest consternation for the workers are actually the people doing them most harm. Actually, let’s not even refer to them with the misleading terms ‘sweatshops’ – let’s call them what they are: factories of low pay (FLP).

But isn't that where the State should get involved?

In most cases, probably not! They are highly likely to mess it up. You may have some idealistic fantasy about State powers intervening to rescue developing nations from the oppression of heartless corporate hounds, but you know as well as we do that no such thing can ever materialise - and that the only way for citizens of developing countries to climb the ladder of prosperity is for them to be able to trade more freely and openly in a global market.

Nevertheless, it is the case that big businesses go into developing countries because they know workers there will work for much lower wages than in the developed world, which is kind of immoral, right?

Ah, but lower wages than whom?

Lower than workers in the UK.

But why should you think the two nations' wages would be comparable? They both have different cultures and different prices. Comparing the wages of two very different countries with vastly different levels of wealth is pointless. £2 in Bangladesh goes a lot further than £2 in the UK.

It still pains us to see them working in less favourable conditions though.

Sure, but while it often elicits indignation and disgust, the resultant outcome of this is an outcome that benefits both parties. The workers in developing countries get the chance to enter the global market and earn enough to gradually improve their living standards, and the businesses that set up there are able to make a profit and often expand into other areas of the market.

But while it's evidently the case that the businesses are making a profit out of some of the world's lowest paid labour, the question of whether they are morally wrong or simply the first steps of progression for a developing country looms large.

A few points might make this easier. Firstly, as long as the labour is offered voluntarily then FLP workers are working in FLPs because they prefer that work to the alternatives. I recall a US senator in the nineties banning imports that came from FLPs, which resulted in about 50,000 workers being laid off - many of whom either died or went into prostitution. Secondly, the wages that people earn are determined by the marginal revenue productivity of a worker, which varies according to all sorts of factors - most notably, supply, demand and competition. If a Bangladeshi FLP worker creates £3 per hour worth of revenue for a firm, then accounting for the intervening point between profits and productivity, he (or she) will be paid somewhere between £0 and £3 per hour. Paying him more than £3 would be costly to the firm so they would lay him off. Paying him too little would affect productivity, which affects profits.

So is it actually immoral to pay people their marginal revenue productivity when A) doing so offers them hugely greater benefits than the alternatives, and B) if even more of these factories existed there would be more people getting out of their plight?

It is difficult to see how this is immoral - particularly once you realise that paying them more than the value of their labour only ends up hurting everybody else trying to get a foot on the first rung on the labour market. Price signals dictate value. Is that immoral? I don't see how it is, because price signals carry all the vital information about value, which is the very thing that underpins all the economic growth humans experience. It's true that politicians and campaigners could feel indignant and demand a rise in pay, but if such an action guarantees harm for millions of others looking to take advantage of the chance to sell their labour and feed their family, then intervention can just as easily be argued as being irresponsibly immoral. Politicians who lament the fact that Bangladesh has 500 factories fail to realise that an even more prosperous Bangladesh would be one that had 1000 factories. Rewind back time 150 years and we'd be saying the same about the UK.

It is in the employers' interest to help improve the working standards for their employees - things like improved health and safety, shorter days, more comfort, better facilities and regular breaks can only help with productivity and morale. The upshot is, things are tough for Bangladeshi workers, but they would be a lot tougher if protest groups got their way and we stopped buying the goods they produce. The result would be to artificially advantage better off workers by eliminating much of the competition. Saying this isn't denying that it's unfortunate that Bangladeshi workers have a much worse time of it than UK workers - but if solutions proffered are actually a misunderstanding of what helps people and what harms them, it is difficult to argue that anti-FLP campaigners are the moral ones and the rests of us are immoral.

I won't deny that many instances of protesting, boycotting and activism have proven to be valuable vehicles for improvement. But many have not been, as they end up interfering in a market they scarcely understand. As has happened in the past 150 years in the UK and USA, and as had happened more recently in about a fifth of the time in places like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong, developing countries get a foot on the ladder of prosperity and begin to become more open to the vital market forces of globalisation that will bring them economic growth and increased prosperity.

But why are so many people still are poor?

Be careful! To understand why the answer lies elsewhere you first have to understand why that's the wrong question. The right question is why are so many people so prosperous? Prosperity is not the default state of human beings - poverty and hardship is. For most of our history we have been struggling through poverty and hardship. Then a couple of centuries ago we saw a progression-explosion brought about primarily by science and capitalism. Naturally there were always going to be countries that experienced these changes in fortune first.

So the poverty and hardship we lament now was once our natural state too?

Exactly! Once upon a time, the kind of hardships seen in India and Bangladesh now were seen in the UK then. We in the UK once used to be an underdeveloped country, having citizens who work painstakingly long hours in very poor working conditions for relatively little money. But as we saw the increased growth of capital, the advancements in technology, and the increased opportunity to trade and innovate, we gradually climbed out of poverty and hardship into greater wealth and prosperity.

What we're saying, then, is that developing nations haven't had their progression-explosion yet?

Sort of, and there's no reason to think every country will experience the same kind of progression-explosion. But what is happening is that people in FLPs now are experiencing something similar to what we did 200 years ago - they have improved their own living conditions by being able to earn money and avoid starving to death. Their standard of living is woefully short of ours - but it is only our increased standard of living that has enabled them to begin their climb to better prosperity. And as I pointed out in this blog, we need 600 million new jobs in the next decade to fully employ the world’s eligible workforce, and entrepreneurs and big businesses are the top creators of new jobs, providing 70% of all new jobs in the world, and up to 90% in some emerging economies. It is the world's biggest businesses that do most to drive economic growth in poorer countries.

How so?

Because the global economy is now a vast interconnectivity that has enabled the poorest countries to enter the market in a way that was nigh-on impossible decades ago. Just as the UK was able to bring about the eradication of its own dire labour conditions by becoming wealthier, the same is happening with today's poorer countries. The best way to ensure they continue to increase their prosperity is to keep opening up the market in which they can sell their goods and services.

EDIT TO ADD: One final thought. Habitually we tend to consider much of our moral thinking in binary terms - kindness and generosity are good things, murder and rape are bad things, and so on (yes there are exceptional circumstances, but generally this is true). Often, though, in economics, applying such binary considerations is misjudged, because economics deals primarily with positive statements, not normative ones. Usually when morality comes into economics it is not to do with good and bad, it is to do with better or worse. In other words, normative statements in economics are usually a matter of scale related to whether decisions make people better or worse off in terms of money to live on, well-being, and so on.

Sweatshops as a perfect example to illustrate this. By any standard we are used to in places like the UK and USA, sweatshops are pretty dire places. But given that countries across the world vary greatly in their developmental stages, it is misjudged to simply refer to them as 'bad' in absolute terms, particularly if by bad you mean wanting them discontinued. Because of the plight of countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, and so forth, sweatshops must be judged not compared with other alternatives in the UK and USA, but instead in comparison to other alternatives in the countries in which sweatshops exist. You can guarantee that sweatshop workers are choosing the best of all the alternatives available to them - alternatives like agriculture, road-building, pulling rickshaws, construction work, hustling in the street, and even worse, prostitution. Those are just some of the alternatives that don't involve death through starvation - and they are all lower paid jobs and involve harder labour than sweatshops. In fact, comparably speaking, much of the work in sweatshops is more skilled labour than any of those jobs (as any dress-making seamstress will tell you).

So the moral situation that people face when talking about sweatshops is roughly this. Given that sweatshops are by far the least bad option for many people, successful campaigns to close them and boycotts against the goods they produce will make those people worse off. Yet speaking out in support of them will cause you grief, and bring accusations that you don't care, even though sweatshops make people better off, and in many cases rescue them from prostitution or death. In summary, then, quite often you either support sweatshops and do the right thing for the people, or you condemn them, get praise, but do the wrong thing for the people. And let's not forget, supporting people's opportunities to work in sweatshops does not mean we can't be a voice for them regarding better working conditions, improved employment protocols, better health and safety, and so forth.