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.
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…