Thanksgiving is now history. Black Friday a thing of the past. Yet Christmas—the holiday of all things commercial—still looms.
The abundance of discounts, markdowns, and tempting offers of “three for the price of two” that welcome in the holiday season with gusto pose a problem for many: what to buy for their loved ones?
For a much smaller minority, another question materializes: what to buy while still helping the “little man”?
Fifty years ago, the “little man” referred to owners of mom-and-pop stores and other small, independent businesses. Today, the “little man” is both man and woman, adult and child. With thousands of sweatshops worldwide, the millions of workers laboring in factories characterized by long hours and low pay shape the body of the 21st century “little man.”
The future of this “little man” is still up in the air.
In the convoluted, controversial discussion over sweatshops, economists generally take the side of the sweatshop.
Mohammad R. Jahan-Parvar, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at East Carolina University, believes sweatshops at least offer Third World workers the option of a job.
“If development is not good,” he said referring to the construed abuse of the sweatshop system, “then what’s the alternative you’re offering? …Are you offering people the opportunity? If you don’t, then you’re depriving them.”
As a professor of economics, Jahan-Parvar can’t help but look at the bottom line. Sweatshops, he said, are a natural step in the development of a nation’s economy.
Surprisingly, he pointed to the U.S. as an example of a country in which sweatshops acted as the springboard toward unparalleled growth.
During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the American economy was propelled forth by the backbreaking labor of young, often female workers in unkempt and unsafe factories.
Although Jahan-Parvar did not condone this past abuse—or the current abuse practiced in factories abroad and within the U.S.’ borders—he can’t help but acknowledge the tremendous impact the Industrial Revolution made.
He also can’t help but look at the big picture.
“We’re not talking about individuals…but inter-generational transitions,” he said.
Jahan-Parvar has another reason for supporting sweatshops. Born and raised in Iran, a “showcase of what economic isolation can do to you,” he said, Jahan-Parvar has experienced first hand what it’s like to have no options.
Iran’s closed market birthed a kicking, flourishing black market, but left a grim future for ambitious young men like Jahan-Parvar. This lack of “options,” a word that, so far, has no place within the Iranian private sector, makes the concept of sweatshops all the more attractive.
“At least the worker would have a job, producing something real,” he said. “At least working in a sweatshop is not illegal.”
While economists, like Jahan-Parvar, may take the side of sweatshops, the anti-sweatshop movement within the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with. And its momentum is only growing.
During the early ‘90s, strong media coverage of sweatshop abuses pressured multinationals, like Nike and Gap, to reform their outsourcing policies and adopt a more transparent system. It also prompted the formation of many watchdog groups.
SweatFree Communities is one of those groups. Founded in 2003 with the mission to “build a sweatfree movement in solidarity with sweatshop workers in order to improve working conditions,” the SweatFree campaign adopts a local, grassroots approach to combating sweatshops worldwide.
Its subsidiary, SweatFree Northwest, was responsible for working alongside the Portland SweatFree Campaign to pass the second sweatshop free ordinance in the Pacific Northwest on Oct. 15. The Portland Sweatshop Free Purchasing Policy designates that all uniforms worn by city police, firefighters and other public-sector employees must be made “sweatfree.”
Elizabeth Swager, the official spokesperson for SweatFree Northwest, heralded the passing of the ordinance as a reminder of the role the public has in influencing public policy.”
“Everyone has to be responsible,” she said.
While Swager recognizes sweatshops provide jobs, she thinks the risks outweigh any fleeting benefits.
“The improvement [is] for a short while,” she said.
A classic example, said Swager, occurs when a company opens a factory abroad, creates temporary jobs and then relocates to an ever cheaper labor force.
“This isn’t development. This is a race to the bottom,” she said. “[The workers] take the jobs out of desperation, but it’s to work in dismal conditions and then lose their jobs.”
This does not help their situation.
Instead of a “race to the bottom,” Swager believes companies should focus on paying “a human wage…a fair wage.” The cost for paying workers a “fair wage,” she said, would have little effect on consumer prices. Doubling wages of sweatshop workers would only result in a one to three percent increase.
In the end, Swager said, it’s the workers who suffer the most. Immigrants, “who are in a very vulnerable position,” women and people of color, she said, are sucked into a system that takes advantage of them.
Assistant professor of business at Corban, Jonathan Meyers, also weighed in on the debate.
“I can kind of see the arguments [going] both ways,” he said.
Meyers acknowledged that any resolution of the issue can seem like a “cop-out.”
“Twelve hours in a factory may be better than 16 hours in the backbreaking heat,” he said. “Again, it sounds kind of like a cop-out, ‘cause how many options they really have?”
“Not a great deal, “he answers back.
Rachel Brown is a senior Communications major and news editor of her school newspaper, the Hilltop News at Corban College in Salem. When not fretting over her future, she enjoys swooning over the “Twilight” series, jogging, and the occasional dance party or two.