Off My High Horse

Like many people, I have been outraged by stories of child labor in the world.  The first time I visited Asia, I was shocked by all the children working in the middle of the school day.  In Burma, my room was cleaned by 10 year-olds and the kids that served as waiters in the teashops weren’t much older.  At home, I often joined the chorus of outrage at stories about children working in factories and the all-around low pay for employees that made so many of the goods we use every day.     Similarly, I looked on in disgust at the middle aged and older white guys patronizing the sex industry all over Asia.  The solution seemed so obvious:  shut down those terrible factories and get rid of the brothels and sex bars.  Put pressure on businesses not to use children as employees.

After spending more time in the region, I began to see that things are not so simple.   Let’s assume I’m part of a well-meaning pressure group trying to get a company to stop using child labor or stop exploiting workers.  What happens if we succeed in shutting down the big bad factory that employs children or pays less than a dollar a day?  A lot of people are out of work.  Instead of one dollar a day they now have zero dollars a day.  And the kids?  In Burma, primary schools are supposed to be free.  But, that doesn’t stop some corrupt officials from charging anyway, plus uniforms and books cost money.  Instead of working the kids are now hanging around their village doing who knows what.  Meanwhile, the company has moved its factory somewhere new.  So, maybe we feel better now because we don’t have to see the images of these poor people being exploited.  But have we left them any better off?  Doubtful.

The next question, of course, was why don’t businesses just pay their employees a little more and improve their working conditions? For the answer, I had to look in the mirror.  I, like many of us, would go to five different stores to save a dollar on a T-shirt.  If companies have to pay more to make their products, they are going to lose sales.  There are companies that sell fair trade clothes.  I wonder how many of us who criticize companies for their labor practices actually are willing to spend a bit more for fair trade items.  Why don’t companies just take a little less profit and keep their prices the same?  Decreased profits means a falling stock price.  I wonder how many of us are willing to hold on to a stock with a falling price because we appreciate a good corporate citizen.

I had a similar change in view regarding sex workers.  First, let me be clear that I am not talking about girls that have been trafficked and are being forced into prostitution. Trafficking is horrible and cannot be excused on any level.  All possible efforts should be made to eliminate it completely.  However, most prostitutes in Asia are not trafficked.*  They are typically from poor areas and turn to sex work as an alternative to working on a farm or in a factory for long hours at low wages.  Its not like the girls who work in the sex industry are choosing between prostitution and Harvard.  The more I looked into the situation, the more I realized that I was forcing my own moral judgments on these girls and their clients.  These girls get paid significantly more for arguably easier work than the alternative.  Of course, sex work brings risk of disease and violence, but if I am being honest with myself, I can’t say with certainty that I might not make the same choice if put in the same circumstances.  Unless I am ready to provide sex workers with an education or a better job, I intend to keep my mouth shut and stop judging.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe that underpaid factory work, child labor, or sex work are good things.  However, I see them as a symptom of larger problems of poverty and lack of opportunity.  Rather than swooping in and shutting down factories or “rescuing” women from the sex industry and then moving on to the next project, we should focus our energy on long-term development efforts to provide alternatives.

*See, e.g., Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom Of Whores Bureaucrats: Brothels and the Business of AIDS (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), 2006, Chapter 6.


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