It is not surprising that Americans were appalled by the incident. The average person living in our prosperous country cannot imagine what it is really like in third world countries. My parents are missionaries to Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The unemployment rate is 16% and the underemployment rate has reached 36% (CIA World Factbook). These figures ma not seem all that bad, but in Nicaragua "employment" may consist of anything from selling fruit by the side of the road to washing cars in a parking lot. Having visited several times, I have seen thousands of people roaming the streets; begging in an attempt to support their starving families. A very common site is a young girl--sometimes three or four years old--running around barefoot and scantily clothed. On one occasion my family was eating at an outside restaurant when a young, dirty girl came up to our table and asked if she could have our scraps--chicken bones that we were going to throw away. These people beg because they have no means of support. The few factories in Nicaragua are already full of people needing work. Even if the parents can get a job, the children are left to roam the streets. The Nicaraguan people would love for someone like Kathie Lee to bring one of her so called "sweatshops to Nicaragua. They do not see it as an atrocity, but as a reliable means of support.
Many are horrified at the incredibly low pay and the use of children in the sweatshops. By our American standards, this is criminal. Americans may not realize that what is seen as scandalously low wages in the United States, is far better than anything else offered in third world countries. Making $.13 an hour is preferable to begging all day for one meal. In the U.S. there are laws prohibiting child labor, so naturally Americans would be shocked at the number of young children working in foreign sweatshops. The parents of these children cannot afford the luxury of a babysitter. If the children are not working in the factory, they will be alone in the streets. Far better for them to work and eat than to go hungry in the streets.
With the big focus on sweatshops outside of the United States, many people are not aware that the same kind of thing is going on right here in the United States. According to Juliet B. Schor, author of The Overworked American, the problem is very serious in large urban areas. Inspectors have found sweatshops employing poor immigrants, sometimes young children, who hold daytime jobs forcing them to miss out on school. Schor also reports that over a million migrant farmworker children are working in the nation's fields. Many would question why this is any different than sweatshops in foreign countries. The answer is that in foreign countries it is the accepted way of life.
In third world countries the people are used to low wages and long hours. They know that there is no other way for them to support their families. Conversely, America is the land of opportunity. People come to America to find a better life, not to end up working in the same or worse conditions as before. Third world countries cannot afford to pay their workers more and give them the benefits that Americans enjoy, so the "sweatshops" are the best they have to offer to the uneducated majority. America is the most prosperous country in the world. We can and should make sure that every worker had decent wages and good working conditions. Many times immigrants are exploited because their presence in America is resented and usually can not communicate well enough to stand up for themselves. In most cases immigrants do not object to poor working conditions and low wages because it is far better than what they had before and they are just glad to have a job. They are afraid to say anything for fear they will lose their job--a very real concern.
The solution is not to totally eliminate sweatshops both in foreign countries and in the United States, but to improve the working conditions
and to make sure that no one's rights are abused or ignored. In response to the labor controversy, Halmode Apparel, which produces
much of Kathie Lee clothing line, now sends auditors to visit factories every three months to inspect working conditions. If this could
be done in factories everywhere, these so called "sweatshops" could continue to be a reliable means of support for thousands of unemployed
people in third world countries.
CIA World Factbook http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/nu.html (April 9, 1998).
Levine Ellen., ed. "Something Deep Inside Me Died." Good Housekeeping Aug. 1997: 86-89.
Schor, Juliet B. The Overworked American. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.