Washington Babylon — December 17, 2009, 12:14 pm

The Sweat of His Labor: Kristof and the global apparel industry

I have an article in the January issue of Harper’s called “Shopping for sweat: The human cost of a two-dollar T-shirt,” which looks at the apparel industry in Cambodia. That country promotes itself, with the help of major apparel companies that source from there (like Gap Wal-Mart, Nike and Target) as a model apparel producer. Two years ago, USA Today published an article about how the country had “position[ed] itself as the sweatshop-free producer in a fiercely competitive global clothing market”; Cambodia, a Levi’s executive told the newspaper, “is a special country.”

Despite this pleasing reputation, the labor situation in Cambodia is as bad as in other cheap labor havens. According to a 2008 survey, apparel workers there get paid an average of 33 cents an hour, lower than anywhere in the world but Bangladesh.

My article examines the work of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of the foremost advocates of cheap labor in the Third World. “Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’ I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh,” he wrote last January, in his inimitable prose style that resembles nothing so much as a den mother addressing a troop of Brownies. “The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn . . . Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.” For families living in the dump, “a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty,” and attempts by Obama to push for “living wages” for apparel workers in the Third World would merely ratchet up production costs for industry and lead to factory shutdowns and layoffs. “The central challenge in the poorest countries,” he wrote, “is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”

This column was remarkably similar to one Kristof wrote in 1998 from Indonesia (though at least in that one there was an absence of forlorn rats). “In the slums in Indonesia and in Thailand, many workers even speak of sweatshop jobs as their greatest aspiration,” he wrote. “Here in the Indonesian capital, Mrs. Tratiwoon stood barefoot recently in the vast garbage dump where she makes a living scavenging through the rubbish and described her dreams for her 3-year-old son: She wants him to grow up to work in a sweatshop.”

Incidentally, Kristof’s speakers’ bureau, APB, says his typical fee is approximately $30,000. Hence, for an hour during which he offers “a compassionate glimpse” into global poverty and gives voice to the voiceless,” as his APB profile puts it, Kristof pockets what a Cambodian apparel worker would make in about 50 years. Nice work, if you can get it.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2015

In the Shadow of the Storm

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Measure for Measure

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Israel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Camera on Every Cop

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
“The campaign music stopped. Hundreds of people, their faces now warped by the dread of a third bomb, began running for cover.”
Photograph © Guy Martin/Panos.
Article
Part Neither, Part Both·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Eight months pregnant I told an old woman sitting beside me on the bus that the egg that hatched my baby came from my wife’s ovaries. I didn’t know how the old woman would take it; one can never know. She was delighted: That’s like a fairy tale!”
Mother with Children, by Gustav Klimt © akg-images
Article
What Recovery?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Between 2007 and 2010, Albany’s poverty rate jumped 12 points, to a record high of 39.9 percent. More than two thirds of Albany’s 76,000 residents are black, and since 2010, their poverty rate has climbed even higher, to nearly 42 percent.”
Photograph by Will Steacy
Article
Rag Time·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

From a May 23 commencement address delivered at Hofstra University. Doctorow died on Tuesday. He was 84.
“We are a deeply divided nation in danger of undergoing a profound change for the worse.”
Photograph by Giuseppe Giglia
Article
The Trouble with Israel·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“We think we are the only people in the world who live with threat, but we have to work with regional leaders who will work with us. Bibi is taking the country into unprecedented international isolation.”
Photograph by Adam Golfer

Ratio of money spent by Britons on prostitution to that spent on hairdressing:

1:1

A German scientist was testing an anti-stupidity pill.

A Twitter spokesperson conceded that a “Frat House”–themed office party “was in poor taste at best.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today