Well-off American college students and $25 per hour union workers have banded together in a growing movement for what they describe as a “progressive” cause and a battle against “exploitation.” Their goal: to take away economic opportunities from desperately poor people in the Third World.

This is the vicious contradiction behind the recent campaign against so-called “sweatshops”: The “progressives” scream loudly about “workers’ rights” — but their actual goal is to deprive poor people in the Third World of their right to work.

The first mark of a dishonest campaign is a refusal to define its terms. Campus activists use the term “sweatshop” as a catchphrase to rouse the hearer’s emotions, but not to convey information. And to the extent they do explain the term, notice that they package together real, concrete violations of individual rights — such as forced labor — with such minor charges as not providing enough bathrooms for workers.

This package deal is meant to smear all Third World factories as slave camps in which workers are somehow coerced into unpaid labor. But documented cases of actual slave labor — most of them in China — are few. And forced labor is not, in fact, the real target of the “sweatshop” smear. If it were, these activists would be directing their outrage, not at American companies, but at the Communist government of China.

In actual practice, the term “sweatshop” is used to attack factories in which workers voluntarily accept jobs with longer hours, more primitive conditions, and lower wages than we are used to in America. The activists’ real complaint is that wages and working conditions in Third World factories do not match those in advanced industrial countries.

But why should we expect them to? The anti-“sweatshop” complaints ignore a crucial fact: the people who agree to work in these factories live in countries plagued by abject poverty. For them, 60 cents an hour or a 12-hour work day — terms that seem terrible to an educated American — actually represent a step forward. These factories are an important economic opportunity for the people who work in them.

And that brings us to the second mark of a dishonest campaign: the refusal to mention facts that don’t fit one’s prejudice. A group called Students Against Sweatshops, for example, complains that baseball caps sold by several major universities are made in a factory in the Dominican Republic where “the base pay for a typical worker is 69 cents per hour.” What they don’t tell you is that in the Dominican Republic, per capita GNP — the amount of wealth produced each year per person — is only $1,770 (according to the World Bank). At 69 cents an hour — the base level of pay — the workers making these caps would roughly match that amount. In other words, these workers are paid in accordance with the prevailing wages in that country.

Bear in mind that the vast majority of people in the Third World have little education or specialized skills; they own no investment capital or natural resources. As recently as a few decades ago, most had to eke out their subsistence through back-breaking labor in the fields. Were these people victimized by being offered jobs in clothing factories? Quite the contrary: they now have more economic opportunities than were available before — and that’s why so many of them voluntarily choose to work in these factories.

Why all the outrage, then, from the “progressives”? The anti-“sweatshop” campaign is driven, not by concern for Third World workers, but by hatred for American corporations. The activists’ real complaint is that Third World factories are run for the purpose of making profits and not as a form of foreign aid. Wages, in their view, should not be set by the free market or by the requirements of investors and business owners. Instead, wages should be a kind of subsidy paid by American corporations as a welfare payment to the Third World.

The activists’ campaign is driven by the dogma that anything motivated by self-interest is inherently evil — no matter what the actual facts. In service to this dogma, any benefits gained by workers from industrialization and “global capitalism” must be ignored, rejected, and eventually outlawed — even if it means more poverty for those whom the “progressives” allegedly want to protect. This scam should be unmasked and this anti-capitalist dogma rejected. It should be done in the name of American corporations, who have a right to profit from inexpensive goods freely produced in the Third World. And it should be done in the name of the workers in these factories, who have a right to improve their lives by seizing the economic opportunities offered to them.

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Robert W Tracinski

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

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