MAXWELL:  A sweatshop here, a godsend elsewhere

8/4/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


All of the hand-wringing over Kathie Lee Gifford’s and Michael Jordan’s affiliations with products made in foreign sweatshops takes me back to my travels in Central Africa during the 1970s. The controversy also reminds me of how ignorant most Americans are of other cultures.

Everywhere, I mostly saw poverty and misery, especially in the harbor town of Dixcove on Ghana’s Gold Coast. There, sea mists and the moisture of fetid marshes and lagoons shrouded the bamboo huts and tin shanties.

As a member of a group of American college professors studying Ghana’s oral tradition, I lived at the edge of a river in an airy bungalow. Trash littered the dirt streets, fly-infested piles of goat and chicken manure lay everywhere, and streams of raw sewage crisscrossed some alleys. Big flies attacked everything that moved.

Pot-bellied tykes roamed the streets in search of food and whatever else they could beg or steal. As American blacks, we were prime targets. A 9-year-old boy, who had a runny sore on the back of his neck, followed me everywhere, and I grudgingly adopted him during my two months there. I gave him money, junk food, a University of Chicago sweat shirt and a Chicago Cubs baseball cap.

After he took me to a smelly hut to meet his family, my heart went out to him. His 12-year-old sister supported the family as a prostitute. Three of his siblings had died during birth, and his parents suffered from onchocersiasis, or river blindness. I later learned that the father had leprosy.

I have not gone back to the area, but a former colleague who traveled there earlier this year tells me that few things have changed: River blindness, malaria, gastroenteritis and pneumonia still afflict hundreds; life expectancy remains about 52.2 years for the men, 55.8 for the women; infant mortality is still high.

And just as significantly, few children attend school, making illiteracy extremely high. Because of the illiteracy and the lack of technical training, many Dixcove residents are virtually unemployable by American standards. In U.S. currency, the average worker would earn about $1,800 a year.

Dixcove residents are typical of millions of others in Third World nations. They need plenty of steady, unskilled jobs. If we Americans could set aside our concept of the superiority of Western cultural values, we would realize that people like these would welcome a chance to sew fabric for Wal-Mart’s Kathie Lee Gifford line or stitch leather for Nike’s Air Jordans and soccer balls.

I am not advocating the establishment of sweatshops in Third World nations. Nor am I excusing Gifford and Jordan for lending their good names to businesses that reportedly abuse children. I contend, though, that most things are relative, that too many Americans are ignorant of employment and labor standards in other nations, that we are too quick to demonize what we do not comprehend.

A recent New York Times article about sweatshops in Honduras points out, for example, that what Americans view as exploitation, Hondurans, whose per capita income is $600 a year, see as a godsend. With unemployment at 40 percent, Hondurans, including children as young as 14, eagerly work long hours for Global Fashion, the company that makes the Gifford line.

In Honduras, 14-year-olds can legally work up to six hours a day if their parents and the Labor Ministry approve. Rarely does anyone disapprove. Many of the sweatshops provide medical care and subsidized lunches for employees. If Global Fashion did not hire these children, they would be on the streets begging _ or worse. Few of them attend school after the sixth grade, and their families depend on their wages to make ends meet.

As to the other side of the globe, child labor activists in the U.S. point out that the monthly wage of the average Nike worker in Indonesia is about $117, or 53 cents an hour. This amount is about the price of a pair of Air Jordans.

If those figures are appalling, consider these: Indonesia’s minimum wage is $56 a month, or 25 cents an hour for a 55-hour workweek, much less than what Nike pays. What appears to be mere pennies to Americans _ 53 cents an hour compared to 25 cents an hour _ can mean the difference between eating or starving, between sleeping on a mattress or wallowing on the ground to an Indonesian family.

Would these Third World families be better off if Wal-Mart and Nike shut down their plants? I do not think so. And neither do most of the workers. From my American perspective, I certainly believe that Gifford is on the right track in trying to improve sweatshop manufacturing both abroad and here at home. Wages should be raised, and working conditions and benefits should be upgraded. But before we condemn working conditions in faraway lands, we should try to understand the realities of these economies.

Listen, for instance, to Evangelina Argueta, a labor organizer in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, speaking to Americans wanting to kick children in her community out of apparel jobs. “This country is not the United States,” she told the New York Times. “Very few Honduran mothers can afford the luxury of feeding their children until they are 18 years old without putting them to work.”

When these children are kicked out of the garment factories, Argueta said, many are forced to settle for more abusive work for less pay. But most buy phony identification and re-enter the apparel industry through the back door.

To most Americans, this arrangement is tantamount to abuse. To Honduran children and their families, however, it is survival.