June 08, 2006

Hooray for Activists

Do anti-sweatshop activists make poor countries even poorer? Nick Kristof says yes, but has no actual data. I'd like actual data. Here's a good paper, from Ann Harrison and Jason Scorse of Berkeley, that suggests Kristof's wrong:
During the 1990s, human rights and anti-sweatshop activists increased their efforts to improve working conditions and raise wages for workers in developing countries. These campaigns took many different forms: direct pressure to change legislation in developing countries, pressure on firms, newspaper campaigns, and grassroots organizing.

This paper analyzes the impact of two different types of interventions on labor market outcomes in Indonesian manufacturing: (1) direct US government pressure, which contributed to a doubling of the minimum wage and (2) anti-sweatshop campaigns. The combined effects of the minimum wage legislation and the anti-sweatshop campaigns led to a 50 percent increase in real wages and a 100 percent increase in nominal wages for unskilled workers at targeted plants. We then examine whether higher wages led firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere.

Although the higher minimum wage reduced employment for unskilled workers, anti-sweatshop activism targeted at textiles, apparel, and footwear plants did not. Plants targeted by activists were more likely to close, but those losses were offset by employment gains at surviving plants. The message is a mixed one: activism significantly improved wages for unskilled workers in sweatshop industries, but probably encouraged some plants to leave Indonesia.
That leaves some questions unanswered—is it a bad thing that some plants left Indonesia, so long as workers could find employment elsewhere, and at higher wages?—but it certainly suggests that anti-sweatshop activism is much more beneficial than suggested by the likes of Kristof, at least in Indonesia. I'll try to have more on this later. One thing Harrison and Scorse note is that labor costs in Indonesia account for only 4 percent of the cost of, say, a $90 sneaker, so many factories can absorb the higher wages without needing to relocate.

Meanwhile, Edward Gresser points out via email that anti-sweatshop activists could probably do a world of good by highlighting and endorsing countries and companies with good labor practices. That seems right; activists tend to be good about promoting sweatshop-free clothing made here in the United States, but apart from "fair trade coffee," I can't think of similar campaigns for products manufactured abroad. (In fairness, maybe I'm just missing them.)

But it also seems like this should be the task of the U.S. government, rather than 20-year-old college students. Regulations and labels that highlighted imports made under "fair" working conditions seem appropriate, much like the USDA does with "organic food." Obviously, though, "organic" labels can be fudged and fiddled with—a trend that will likely increase now that Wal-Mart has joined the organic market and will no doubt lobby the (largely pro-agribusiness) USDA to loosen the definition of what counts as "organic" in the first place. But that's a story for another time...
-- Brad Plumer 3:56 PM || ||