Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Globalization and Sweatshops


A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the ancient Khmer temples in Cambodia, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, but also lesser known temples such as the amazing Angkor Thom City and Bayon, and the amazing Banteay Srei. Huge numbers of tourists flock to Siem Reap to see these ancient temples, and there is an incredible amount of hotel construction in that small city. The most expensive hotels are costly even by western standards, and the cost of a night's stay in a standard room at the five star Sofitel Royal Angkor is scarcely less than a typical Cambodian earns in a year.

It is impossible to visit the temples without observing Cambodia's poverty, as people live in an astonishing density along the roads into the temple region. The typical home is a single room, elevated from the ground to accommodate the high water levels of the rainy season, which may house a sizeable family. Anywhere there is standing water, somebody is growing rice. Many of these houses are along a small river, but although the water has many domestic purposes it is not by any standard safe or potable. A more affluent family, not likely to live in this area, may have a motorcycle, and it is not unusual to see an entire family riding a single motorcycle - mom, dad, and three or four kids. Even among the healthier and more successful adults, you can often see the effects of the mass starvation which occurred under the Khmer Rouge, or the chronic malnutrition that exists among the poor - you see relatively short adults with small frames and heads which seem disproportionately large for their bodies, a permanent reminder of their malnourished childhoods. When you learn the age of children, it is frequently surprising to realize how much smaller the typical Cambodian child is than is a typical child of a similar age in Thailand or Vietnam (let alone the U.S.)

As you close in on Angkor Wat, you have to pass many vendors with small booths, selling a variety of trinkets. At most temple sites, you are likely to be mobbed by children trying to sell you post cards and Wrigley's gum. (Many of these children have amazing contextual language skills for selling their wares - sufficient fluency in English, German, French, and Japanese, and probably one or two other languages, to make their sales pitches, attempt some emotional manipulation, and negotiate price.)

Within some of the temple areas, you will see Cambodian victims of land mines, often playing music to try to earn donations from visitors. An amputee in a nation like Cambodia has virtually no job prospects, and the government is apparently teaching many how to play traditional instruments so that they can raise money from tourists in a more internationally palatable manner than through begging. If you choose to go a bit off the beaten path, you can visit the war museum, or the landmine museum, where the extent of mining and the impact on the population is made plain. While at the temple sites you are most likely only going to see adult victims of landmines, at the landmine museum you will meet children with missing limbs. Many limbs were lost not only during periods of warfare, but in subsequent periods where the hope of scavenging items to sell or of harvesting tropical woods led the locals to enter areas which they knew to be heavily mined, in the hope of earning some money. You won't see any of the tropical rain forests that once dominated the region, save for a few trees of astonishing size which have grown around some of the walls in Angkor Thom City - the giant trees have been harvested and sold.

Cambodia's climate can be difficult for westerners, as it is hot and extraordinarily humid. A rain can seem cooling, but after the rain stops the precipitation evaporates from the ground and the humidity increases significantly. Flying into Cambodia, as your plane lowers to land many of the structures on the ground appear water worn from the heavy rains and flooding of rainy season. If you do a bit of reading on the country, you will learn that the climate is also very difficult on the nation's poor - which, sadly to say, is pretty much everybody. Impoverished children and adults suffer from frequent lung infections, which can have a significant cumulative effect on lifespan. Due to the close proximity of housing, it would be difficult to contain even a mildly infectious disease before it rippled through a community.

There's a certain naivete to the population, which appears to emerge in no small part from the loss of so many educated adults during Pol Pot's purges - in essence, a nation of children and teenagers was left to fend for itself. When we stopped at a small holocaust memorial, around which a group of very small children were playing "hide and seek", our tour guide commented in an almost off-hand manner, "We had a killing field here. A small one." There was no apparent concern about the conduct of the Hun Sen government, and I saw no sign of resentment that the best road in Siem Reap was sealed from local traffic - it was reserved exclusively for the King's use should he visit the city.

There is a lot of ambition among Cambodians - they see the opportunity for a better life - and there are many schools which offer to teach English to the locals, an artisan's school which teaches the creation of traditional crafts and stonework which may be sold to tourists, and there are certification programs for tour guides. (A certified tour guide will be competent in the language of his or her clients, will know the history of the temples, and will know the best locations for photographs.) Cambodians proved to be a very welcoming people, and remarkably upbeat. Their resilience is amazing, even if you don't know the nation's history of war, occupation, and genocide.

When I read Nicholas Kristof's column, "Inviting All Democrats", in which he described his visit to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, and his observation of the poor trying to survive by scavenging in a garbage dump, I can't say I was surprised by the economic conditions he described. I did not visit Phnom Penh, but I understand that its poverty goes well beyond that of Siem Reap, and that it has developed an enormous slum region where the poor have congregated in an effort to find a better life in the city. In addition to disease, poverty, and malnutrition, these urban poor also face risk of fire and at times violent confrontation with the police. (Some might note that this type of circumstance is not unique to Cambodia - that description could as easily have been of a slum area in Guatemala City.)

There seem to be two major arguments about global trade policy. One is that worker rights and wages should be dictated by "market forces" (or even suppressed through global trade organizations), such that the people of the developing world can have access to jobs in what we would deem "sweatshops". The counter-argument is that the industrialized world should impose some form of minimum wage, working condition, and environmental conditions on the developing world - whether premised on protecting domestic jobs, or out of concern that multinational corporations are exploiting the world's poor in a manner not likely to help them or their nations pull out of poverty. With self-serving special interest groups backing both sides of the argument, it can be difficult to discern which approach is ultimately best for the people.

Kristof suggests that it is more altruistic to allow expansive sweatshop labor than to regulate the developing world in a manner which might dissuade multinationals from manufacturing goods in nations like Cambodia:
The Democratic Party has been pro-trade since Franklin Roosevelt, and President Bill Clinton in particular tugged the party to embrace the realities of trade. Now the party may be retreating toward protectionism under the guise of labor standards.

That would hurt American consumers. But it would be particularly devastating for laborers in the poorest parts of the world. For the fundamental problem in the poor countries of Africa and Asia is not that sweatshops exploit too many workers; it's that they don't exploit enough.
A politically partisan response is that the impact of the regulation proposed by politicians such as Gephart are not likely to have any greater impact on the developing world than the apparent "weak dollar" policy and legal and illegal tariffs imposed by the Bush Administration. But that partisan tit-for-tat really doesn't interest me.

In a nation like Cambodia, where the economic conditions are dire, it is a bit simplistic to say that "given the choice of two evils, who are we to take away the lesser". There are echoes in Kristof's voice, I'm sure, of the sentiments of the factory owners from the British industrial revolution, rationalizing why it was okay to open the world's first sweatshops to improve the lot for England's poor - and yes, how obvious it was that if the alternatives were better, people would seek them. It was minimum wage and maximum hour laws, as well as laws granting a right to collective bargaining, which elevated the industrial world's workers out of similar conditions. While there is a fundamental truth to the argument that if sweatshops were worse than the alternative, people wouldn't work in them, I am not as quick as some to begrudge the workers of the developing of legal rights and benefits similar to those which helped create a prosperous middle class in the developed world, particularly in the name of "helping the poor" of those nations.

There's a certain obscenity in Nike's willingness, at the drop of a dime, to move production to the nation with the lowest labor cost, while simultaneously entering into $100,000,000 endorsment contracts with domestic celebrities. While Kristof notes that there is a loss to a nation which loses a sweatshop to a cheaper labor market, that already happens. The goods produced in the sweatshops he applauds in Cambodia were likely formerly produced in sweatshops in Thailand and Vietnam, before Cambodia became sufficiently stable that its population could be put to work. Next stop, Laos - or perhaps Burma, where the government will certainly be helpful in squelching any worker unrest.

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