“How Much It Sucks to Be a Sri Lankan Worker Making Beyoncé’s New Clothing Line,” reads a recent headline at VICE.
Well, it probably sucks — a lot. And for many Sri Lankans, the only thing suckier than working at a “sweatshop” is not being able to work at one. This, after all, is the choice that people face. So rest assured, Beyoncé is doing more to improve the lives of Sri Lankan workers than all fair-traders and finger-wagging journalists combined.
The VICE piece (and scores of articles just like it) is based on The Sun’s exposé claiming that workers at the singer’s new apparel company are nothing but “slaves” who earn 64 cents per hour so that Beyoncé’s can buy another yacht. One sewing machine operator says she is unable to survive on the basic wage of 18,500 rupees a month ($126). A seamstress makes $6.23 a day.
It’s a shame that people are still forced to live on such a pittance. Hopefully, with advances in technology and the opening of world markets, their suffering will continue to be mitigated. But until Sri Lanka reaches First World status, it’s important to put Ivy Park and countless other companies like it into proper context.
A gross monthly average income of a Sri Lankan is around 8839 rupees. So the operator, though not living on Jay Z levels of subsistence, is faring better than most of her neighbors. For thousands of her fellow laborers, a Beyoncé job offers a higher salary than the one they’d have to live with if she weren’t ridiculously famous.
This has generally been the case when it comes to “sweatshops” around the world. You may not be old enough to remember the 1996 teary-eyed apology Kathie Lee Gifford offered the nation after lending her name to a Wal-Mart clothing line produced in Honduran sweatshops that also employed underage workers. At the time, the average apparel worker earned $13 per day in the Central American nation, while 44 percent of the population was surviving on less than two dollar a day. Yet, after being confronted, Gifford atoned for her sins by promising to warn America about the misery of foreign factory work.
Here at home, the political angle — including the attack on Gifford, Michael Jordan, and others — was driven by labor unions and their front groups. Soon enough, lazy politicians began advocating for laws that would bar Americans from doing business with countries that allowed sweatshops and child labor. Sure. Because if you stop these companies those poor Central American kids will just return to their idyllic lives in the countryside or head off to one of the top-notch educational institutions in their country.
In 2001, Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman Paul Krugman, whose written some of the most effective defenses of so-called sweatshops — “bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all” — explained why these efforts were insanity:
In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets — and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.
So where do the people who subcontract with Ivy Park work?
When VICE reached out to a Sri Lanka labor expert, no doubt expecting him to describe some soul-crushing hellhole, it got a pretty tepid response. “MAS [the factory] are essentially top of the range in terms of labour conditions in Sri Lanka,” Dr. Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Edinburgh told VICE. “They’re brilliant factories in terms of the build space and the attention they usually pay to the codes they work with. However, I would say that when it comes to wages and freedom of association, MAS don’t do a very good job.”
So, after having to grapple with two inconvenient facts — 1) that salaries at MAS are better than prevailing wages in Sri Lanka, and 2) that the factory is probably a relatively modern and safe place to work —the VICE reporter drops a debatable proposition on the reader:
“Disturbingly, MAS workers are not allowed to unionize, despite the obvious benefits unions bring.”
Now, despite the presence of a superfluous adjective in that statement, the lack of unions is not disturbing at all. I mean I realize we’re supposed to believe that if workers in the slums of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte (yes, I looked it up) only had a union, they’d be retiring with generous pension plans and enjoying 20 vacation days a year and eight-hour workdays. This is not how it worked in any of the Asian countries that have benefited from manufacturing over the past decades. One day I hope private sector workers in Sri Lanka will be free to organize — or, free not to. But unions would almost certainly undermine MAS’s bid to make Western sportswear now, and those jobs would move to Malaysia or Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Wherever those jobs go, Beyoncé, who is running a business not a charity, is an inadvertent force of good.
In fact, if you want to help the world’s impoverished, you should probably buy her products. The more demand there is for tight-fitting, overpriced celebrity clothing lines, the more factories Sri Lankans will have to work in. As those workers have more choices, salaries will rise and so will the quality of life. This competition will impel employers to increase productivity and, if Sri Lanka doesn’t revert to its old ways, the economy will grow. The children of these workers will turn to white-collar professions. And before you know it, factories will be taken over by automatons and the Sri Lankan middle class will grumble about how the Indonesians are stealing their jobs.
This process might not sit will with the empathetic American liberal, and it might not happen as quickly as we’d like, but it’s how the world works.