The problem of sweatshops

Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece in the New York Times (Where Sweatshops are a Dream) brings up a fascinating point about sweatshops. Kristof talks about people whose lives are so miserable that working in a sweatshop seems like a dream. He suggests that sweatshops offer people a way out of poverty.

I think Kristof may have made a mistake by using the term “sweatshop.” A factory sounds infinitely better than a sweatshop.

Beyond that semantic point, the whole topic leaves me with very mixed feelings.

I feel sad for the people all around the world who are living miserable lives. I truly wish that all of them could have nice jobs, homes, and plenty of food. I don’t want them to work in a dump or a factory.

But I also realize that we can’t wave a wand and get rid of their poverty. Furthermore, it’s easy for us to look at their situation from our ivory American towers and declare that children should not have to work long hours in a factory for less money than we spent on our morning lattes. But what if that is the only way that child has a chance at a better life?

I read the editors’ picks of the reader comments on Kristof’s article, too. Those comments were just as interesting as the article itself. I came away with the sense that we’re all sad about these awful situations, but it’s difficult to know what to do about them.

Is it possible that a job in a factory could be someone’s dream come true? Yes. And maybe we Americans need to accept that.

Can we accept that while still abhorring slavery, and encouraging factory owners to provide clean, safe working environments and fair wages? I think we can, though we will need to remember that fair wages there aren’t the same as fair wages here.

And I will keep my opinions about minimum wage for another time.

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