[Marxism] Re: Bhagwati and Sweatshops

Julio Huato juliohuato at hotmail.com
Tue Feb 17 13:59:47 MST 2004


My last posting on this thread.

My contention is that, if we are going to criticize Bhagwati or anyone else 
for that matter, we need to understand their arguments and be fair or else 
we're really fooling ourselves.

Mine wrote:

>It is because sweatshops are "predominantly"  in the third world.

Bhagwati's point is that the U.S. picks and chooses the "issues" -- 
manufactures the "issues," so to speak -- in order to weaken the negotiating 
position of the Third World.  They select the "issues" where the Third World 
is at a disadvantage.  So these "issues" become excuses for the U.S. to 
enact protection and deny access to Third World imports.  So much for free 
trade.

>But students do "not" deny unfair labor practices exist in the U.S. Here is 
>what the Columbia anti-sweatshop commitee says:
>http://www.c-sas.org/csas-faq.pdf [clip]

>As students themselves indicate, there are 2500 sweatshops violating labor 
>standards in New York City. China town is full of sweatshops. The fact IS 
>that you are misreading students' intentions. Anti-sweatshop groups do not 
>focus on third world labor only. [clip]

As I said, these students probably have good intentions.  But good 
intentions are not always rewarded with good deeds.  The problem is the 
consequences.  As Bhagwati insinuates in his letter, Columbia University has 
the right to enforce whatever policy they wish for their store merchandise, 
but they cannot say it is for the good of workers in the Third World.  Or 
they can, but they may be wrong.  Their policy may reflect their great 
intentions.  But, again, consequences don't have to be good just because 
intentions are good.

If you generalize what the students at Columbia University were doing, then 
you're objectively trying to impose labor standards on the exporting 
countries.  There's no way around it.  And just because you also complain 
about the sweatshops at home doesn't mean you're right abroad.  Even if they 
applied equal pressure on enacting anti-sweatshop legislation at home as 
abroad, that means that they are applying *proportionally* more pressure 
abroad.

>How did he get interested in policing campus activism then? He did not 
>hesitate to complain to the President? did he?

How was Bhagwati "policing" campus activism?  He was stating his views on a 
debate that could lead to a change in Columbia University's policy.  He's a 
member of the university, like students and other faculty are.  The students 
wanted to use trade (or the threat of no trade) as a way to force poor 
countries to adopt the labor standards the students regarded as good.

>You are should not associate anti-sweatshop groups with U.S. conspiracy or 
>anti-third wordlism. Labor standarts are not a U.S. monopoly; they are 
>universal rights (organized by workers themselves!)

I'm not saying there's a conspiracy.  It may be sheer political naivete.  
But, again, what matters is the consequence.  The students intentions are to 
be applauded, but there are proper ways to proceed.  And it seems to me that 
they didn't follow due procedure.

For example, if workers from the sweatshops in Bangladesh or Honduras 
solicit the solidarity of the "anti-sweatshop" students at Columbia, fine.  
(And, by the way, it has to be a mass of workers soliciting help -- not a 
couple of individuals.)  Suppose these workers send an e-mail saying: "To: 
Columbia University students -- Please we need your urgent help.  We have 
low wages and terrible working conditions here; we lack housing and basic 
public services.  Somehow we have come to the conclusion that an effective 
way to solve our immediate problems is by having Columbia University and 
other stores in the U.S. reject the products we produce.  Somehow, we 
decided that, if Columbia University and other stores in the U.S. reject the 
products we manufacture, we'll be able to get higher wages and better 
working and living conditions in our own country.  Unfortunately, we don't 
have much influence in Columbia University's internal decision making.  You 
do, however, and that is why we need your support.  Please tell Columbia 
University not to buy the products we make.  Thank you in advance."

Well, in that case, the students may decide they are willing and able to 
help out.  Okay then, they may go ahead and help.  But note that they should 
help the workers *in the form and in the terms* they -- the workers -- ask 
to be helped.  This is something we would have to respect -- whether or not 
we agree with the analysis and conclusions drawn by the workers.  What is 
not okay is for the students to decide on their own what the best way to 
help the workers is, to do it regardless of the workers' desires, and -- on 
top of that -- pretend that they are doing it for the workers' sake.  
Workers are people with minds and wills.  Let them decide when and how they 
want to be helped.  And then, if we still want to help, we may help.  If 
not, we need to get out of the way.

Julio

>III. What About Choice of Standard for Columbia?
>
>If the arguments that I have made, albeit briefly, have any cogency, then 
>public legislation that requires or mandates that our multinationals pay 
>abroad a living wage or exclude the use of child labour altogether is to be 
>rejected. But that does not mean that, as private parties, we do not 
>indulge whatever ethical preferences, no matter how ill-grounded, to insist 
>that such restrictions be placed on what we voluntarily do.
>
>So, if the Columbia community wishes to move in that direction for its 
>purchases of apparel, that seems to me to be fine, even if wrong. My only 
>skepticism is about procedure. We are a cosmopolitan community which must 
>show an extra concern for the effects of our choices on the poor countries 
>which we must seek to assist. As a place for dispassionate inquiry, 
>animated by passionate embrace of higher objectives, we are also supposed 
>to encourage informed arguments and to arrive at choices based thereon.

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