September 20, 2011

Rethink the anti-sweatshop initiative

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To the Editor:

Re:  “City Committee Advances Anti-Sweatshop Initiative,” News, Sept. 1

The “Sweatshop Free Initiative” passed by the Ithaca City Administration Committee is a victory for the self-esteem of Cornell’s labor activists, not for human rights. It is a well-established economic reality that the world’s poorest countries have one comparative advantage in the global economy: cheap labor. The worst factories in these countries are undeniably foul and detrimental to human health, but without them, the world’s poorest are left trapped by the socioeconomic straitjacket of rural starvation and unresponsive rule-of-law, which serves only the well-connected. Those employed in “sweatshops” accurately view cheap labor as their only opportunity to join the middle class, empowering them, over time, to more effectively demand accountable governance and equitable status under the law. As noted by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, “Sweatshops tended to generate the wealth necessary to solve the problems they created.” Because of globalization and cheap labor, the share of the population living on less than $1 a day plunged from 60 percent to 20 percent in East Asia between 1980 and 2000.

Despite their enthusiasm, the work of labor activists on Cornell’s well-fed campus does more to violate the human rights of the impoverished than to help them. Regarding starvation, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman estimated in an article for Slate that, “Since 1970, per capita intake [in Indonesia] has risen from less than 2,100 to more than 2,800 calories a day,” although certainly not “because well-meaning people in the West have done anything to help.”

I urge Ithaca City Administration Committee and Cornell’s activists to reconsider their support for this destructive measure.

–– Jacob Arluck ’14