Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Sweatshops, Wages, and Exploitation in Haiti

I stumbled by accident on a blog today that sheds quite a bit of light on the issue of sweatshop wages and their relationship to average wages in specific countries. While this was not at all the topic I was researching, I wanted to share with you what I found. (Click here to access the original blog I found.)

In the long war waged against Haitian factory owners, one of the common complaints lodged against owners - aside from the important issue of working conditions - was that they paid their employees sub-human wages that were below the Haitian minimum wage. The fact is, that particular claim was false then and is still false today.

In comparison to Western standards, minimum wage in Haiti is low indeed. But the reality about factories is that they pay on average at least double the minimum wage. However, since these Haitian factory owners never saw fit to provide a clear study that would debunk the claims of the anti-sweatshop movement, the former lost the PR war and paid the consequences. [I fault the owners for not banding together to defend themselves. Or maybe they are so selfish that they could not work together for their common good. But that's another story.]

In today's Christian Science Monitor, an opinion piece - Don't Get into a Lather over Sweatshops - by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek says out loud what we have known for some time:

The apparel industry, which is often accused of unsafe working conditions and poor wages, actually pays its foreign workers well enough for them to rise above the poverty in their countries. While more than half of the population in most of the countries we studied lived on less than $2 per day, in 90 percent of the countries, working a 10-hour day in the apparel industry would lift a worker above - often far above - that standard. For example, in Honduras, the site of the infamous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker earns $13.10 per day, yet 44 percent of the country's population lives on less than $2 per day.

In 9 of the 11 countries we surveyed, the average reported sweatshop wages equaled or exceeded average incomes and in some cases by a large margin. In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid by a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than double the average income in that country's economy.

That should lay to rest some of the criticism leveled at Haitian factory owners. The full study - which is going to be published in the Spring 2006 issue of the Journal of Labor Relations - can be found here. As to the authors, Dr. Benjamin Powell is an Assistant Professor of Economics at San Jose State University, and David Skarbek is an Economics major at that same university.

To be fair, there is much more to the anti-sweatshop campaign than the wage issue. There were also claims of horrible working conditions, which was certainly true in some of the plants. It is my hope that Haitian factory owners have substantially improved the working conditions of their employees.

Don't claim that I am in favor of sweatshops! But let's make sure to have a reasoned debate based on FACTS. The wage issue has not been a fair debate up to now.