then there are always voices of dissonance: if we boycott, for example, chinese production because of labor rights, the factories will close and the people will be worse off. children will end up scavenging, parents are doomed to raise their families in shanty towns, their right to work will be removed -- and everyone should have a right to earn a living, however meagre it may be. this is quite true and the results are visible all over asia and africa. the idea can be articulated as
But while it shocks Americans [and europeans, for that matter] to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.
there is a problem with this insight, as well. it is likely that the proponent of the above argument, such as new york times columnist nicholas d. kristof, also believes that prosperity will accumulate in places of work and that the increase in living standards that sweatshops provide (in comparison to begging and scavenging) will eventually lead to other improvements. one claim is that because production stability is key, countries with reliable infrastructure will compete stronger in the global market and a better infrastructure benefits all residents of the country. ideally true, yes.
it is the standard libertarian free-flow of capital argument: if the global market is totally unconstrained, standard of living will eventually increase for all. hence, it is important to keep the wheels of production and investment rolling no matter how substandard the point of origin is, and miraculously, wealth for all will be the result. however, for this there is very little evidence, or to put it nicely, no evidence whatsoever. on the contrary, wealth still seems to find its way to the deep pockets of those who already have most of it and, more importantly, control the flow of it: a free market is never actually free.
my main point is: substandard does not change into acceptable only because there are worse options. sweatshops are still cruel and inhumane places of work even if they are an improvement for those who live at garbage dumps. it may be a dream for someone digging for recyclable materials to find work in a maquiladora, but how could they dream of having a decent paying job with basic benefits? it is unbelievably condescending from us to promote inferior living conditions because we can think of examples where a life of misery is an improvement from another state of hell. it is also suspect whether what we have come to appreciate as sweatshop free, such as aa, are really that humane: minimum wage workers cannot support their families in the us.
thus, there is no defense for sweatshops. arguing for something, which is unfathomable and beyond acceptable for us as a decent standard of living for someone else, is patronizing. defending exploitation with arguments that rely on the fact that there are options worse than them is a smoke screen which tries to cover up the fact that we are responsible for the plight in the first place. we fool ourselves into believing that there are only two (both really bad) possibilities for "those people" as if it were true: imagine being offered a beating with a choice of a stick or a whip and having your point that you'd rather not be beaten at all considered invalid or unreasonable...
yeah, as they say with doomsday fires burning in their eyes, if everybody's level of consumption ([sarcasm]which equals standard of living, right?[/sarcasm]) was raised to the same level than ours, the world would be inhabitable. obviously, we could give up some things to allow everyone else at least a tolerable life, now couldn't we? it ain't gonna fix itself, so the change requires action on our part and moving beyond the level of talking boycotts and poor children digging for food. are we ready?