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.