Sorry Mr. Kristof, We Don’t Need More Sweatshops

January 27, 2009
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

With his January 14 column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof succeeded in sparking a debate over the role of "sweatshops" (his term) in economic development. Unfortunately, he failed in analyzing the question and presents a false choice between the roles of the informal and formal economy in economic development.

By arguing that efforts to improve working conditions are misguided, Kristof mischaracterizes both the problem and the solution.

Over the past several years, hundreds of companies, their suppliers, NGOs, trade unions, and workers have developed innovative, collaborative solutions to improve conditions in the factories that make products sold in wealthy countries. These initiatives have achieved a lot--and hold further potential to improve working conditions and widen the circle of economic advancement.

In his piece, Kristof misses the essential consensus that has formed in recent years on the importance of companies not only avoiding sweatshops that make poor-quality products and damage their reputations but also treating workers better, so consumers get the assurance that the products they buy are not the result of exploitation.

Indeed, working conditions in Cambodia have improved thanks to a unique collaboration spearheaded by the International Labour Organization. Better Factories Cambodia, which BSR is proud to help steer, has made a big difference. Many of our member companies and other businesses have continued to source products from Cambodia because of this partnership, with the result of preserving the very jobs Kristof supports.

This is exactly why Better Factories Cambodia has led to the creation of a global initiative, Better Work, which aims to replicate the successes in Cambodia. (It's also why Irish President Mary Robinson devoted several minutes to support of the program in her speech to the Global Competitiveness Forum here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I am speaking today.)

The drive to improve working conditions and create economic opportunity for low-wage workers remains essential, particularly in the face of the steep global recession. Indeed, many workers’ jobs have vanished, with hundreds of factories in Southern China having closed since last fall and many more jobs are hanging by a thread.

Now is not the time to step away from the hard-earned victories of the past 15 years. Instead, we should build on those successes, and learn from them. This is the thinking behind our Beyond Monitoring initiative, which aims to develop a comprehensive approach based on alignment of commercial and corporate responsibility considerations by buyers, greater adoption of fair working conditions by suppliers, more engagement by workers, and strengthened enforcement and support from local governments.

There is growing economic pressure on efforts to ensure sustainable supply chains. Kristof’s argument that enforcement of labor standards is somehow not in the interests of workers is curiously timed--and just wrong. We won’t, and shouldn’t, stabilize the tottering economy on sweatshops. We will rebuild prosperity by doing business the right way, and the efforts Kristof derides are a crucial part of the answer.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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