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The truth, nothing but the truth

Brain Sandberg has it wrong if he believes the Walmarts of this world are built on corporate human rights violations (Walmart threatens human dignity, Letters, May 19).

First, these workers have a choice — if they are coerced it is slavery and Walmart should be condemned unreservedly. Admittedly, for anyone to choose to work for a very low wage in bad conditions and for long hours, such a choice cannot be made out of a particularly good set of circumstances. By the standard of the average Business Day reader, it could even be called inhumane.

However, the alternatives in many poor developing countries are: scavenging garbage dumps, prostitution, begging, engaging in criminal activity, and trying to make a living of subsistence farming and informal street vending. The same applies to child labour. You cannot assume the alternative is going to school — as opposed to child prostitution or criminal activity. In fact, child labour in the West was fairly common until after the Industrial Revolution.
Contrary to middle-class sensibilities, studies have shown that people perceive “sweatshop” labour more favourably than agricultural work and street vending. It is not just that these “sweatshops” improve meagre monetary positions, they also contribute to increased job prospects for women, educational opportunities and intergenerational mobility.

Second, Mr Sandberg should add up the low hourly wages in “sweatshops” and compare it to the average per capita income. Working 10 or more hours in a “sweatshop” puts many of these workers in a better position than their fellow low-skilled workers outside the exploitative textile garment industry.

Finally, Mr Sandberg should look at China. Already some western firms are pulling out of China and looking for areas with more “competitive” (cheaper) labour. Chinese “sweatshop” workers are beginning to reflect some of the increased prospects mentioned above by demanding and justifying higher wages, moving into higher skilled sectors and continuing to break the poverty cycle. You have to start somewhere. In striving towards the noble goals of human dignity and social responsibility, we need to be cognisant of context-specific realities and the unintended consequences of well-intended policies.

Where and when Walmart behaves unethically, it should be condemned. Corporatist lobbying of politicians and undue government interference in the economy are two sides of the same corporatism coin. It robs us of real choices and is the source of many of the problems in today’s so-called “free market” economies. But we should not throw out the baby with the bath water. I suspect convincing Mr Sandberg of the human dignity and social responsibility inherently implied in a free (or should that be “freed”) market society would be a waste of time.


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