May 3, 2006

Sweatshops in Jordan.

This is an informative article in New York Times on the horrible conditions facing foreign workers in garment factories in Jordan.

In the last decade or so, the trade barriers between the US and Jordan have been eased, resulting in a tremendous growth of exports, particularly of textiles, from Jordan. A number of major retailers in the US, like Walmart and Target, delegate the manufacturing of their clothes to factories in Jordan. As a result, Jordanian exports to the US have increased 20 times in the last five years.

Inevitably, this led to cynical exploitation. Thousands of poor workers managed to escape the misery of unemployment as a result of this spurt in trade. Only to enter a different kind of misery, it would seem. The brunt of this exploitation is borne by the "guest" workers, coming from countries like Bangladesh and China.

Some details of this exploitation make for a depressing reading. 20-hour work days, months without being paid, confiscation of passports etc.

No sensible person will fail to sympathize with their lot. However, caution must be exercised in reaching conclusion as to the nature of and reasons for this phenomenon. It is probably natural, and rather easy, to blame it all on human greed, given wings by the forces of globalization. But such a diagnosis is not only partly incorrect, it fails to address the more basic issues.

Problem with the above reasoning is its implicit assumption that human greed is omnipotent and that the only way to contain it is to avoid any system which might encourage it. But avoiding any system that can possibly encourage greed is foolhardy and such a policy would result in stagnation.

The point is human greed is not omnipotent. There are ways to contain it. A good first step would be improving the conditions of the downtrodden. The only reason for the misery of sweatshops is the helplessness of the workers, and the resultant lack of bargaining power.

I believe that unshackling of trade, part of which is globalization, is an effective way of addressing this first step. The short term traumas notwithstanding.


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