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Sweat Shops, Then and Now


Despite his support for some policies and programs that organized labor has strongly opposed (NAFTA anyone?),  I’ve always been a fan of Robert Reich, President Clinton’s first-term Secretary of Labor.  Even when disagreeing with him, I’ve always found his thinking to be refreshingly clear, and his heart in the right place.

Incidentally, for anyone interested in a fascinating glimpse into White House politics, I can recommend Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet, an insightful (and surprisingly witty) first-person account of his four years as Labor Secretary.

During an interview for my book, Reich and I touched on the rise of Third World manufacturing and the deleterious effect it’s had on America’s industrial sector.  In response to my mini-rant about their deplorable working conditions, Reich reminded me that, historically, “sweatshops” have been a natural point on the trajectory from a rural economy to an industrial one.  It happened in Europe, it happened in the U.S., and it’s happening in the Third World.

Of course, most of us are familiar with that “historical” explanation.  After all, how else could it have occurred?  How else does a country move from a farming economy to an industrial economy?  Clean, safe, well-lighted, modern factories don’t just suddenly spring up overnight.  They evolve.  Historically, the sweatshop has been a natural stage in the progression of an industrial-based economy.

But there’s a critical flaw in this appeal to history, one that hinges upon the failure to recognize a profound difference between then and now.  And that difference is the dominant role of multinational corporations.

Consider an analogy to the “evolution” of former European colonies in Africa and Asia, and the role the Cold War played in it.  Due to enormous political and economic pressure exerted by the tug-of-war between the USA and USSR, these countries were denied the right to self-determination.  They were denied the right to struggle toward a “natural” self-identity.  In a word, they weren’t allowed to evolve.  Instead, many of them became client states.

And so it is with manufacturing industries in the Third World.  The corporate entities who rule these enterprises (and whose loyalty is reserved exclusively for bankers and shareholders) are constantly trolling for industrial “client states” of their own.

Just as it’s getting harder in the U.S. to find employment as a full-time, vested employee—rather than a temp, part-timer, or independent contractor—the same is true of manufacturing enterprises in Third World nations.  It’s all about mobility.  While the word “temporary” may once have had pejorative connotations, today those connotations are all positive.  Temporary means unconstrained.  It means free to move.  It means no hindrances, no limitations, no commitments, and, alas, no long-term responsibilities.

Just as U.S. businesses are constantly seeking ways to pry workers off the traditional concept of “full-fledged employment” and get them to rejoice in seeing themselves as wandering hordes of independent contractors, corporations around the world are doing the same thing, but they are doing it on a gargantuan scale.

These multinational corporations are transforming entire countries into independent contractors.  They “hire” these countries the same way American businesses hire transient workers.  They hire them, train them, equip them, get all they can out of them, and then, as soon as they can strike a better deal elsewhere, they cut them loose.

The deplorable working conditions in countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam and Honduras could almost be “excused” if it were understood by everyone—employers, workers, consumers, human rights groups—that what we’re observing is simply a stage in the natural development of an industrial economy, and that these sweatshops and this unfortunate class of worker are moving inexorably toward something better.

But that’s not the case.  The exploitation of Third World labor has become a monetized and commodified form of “human strip-mining,” and it’s being traded daily on the New York Stock Exchange.  Unless something very dramatic happens, it ain’t going away any time soon.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” 2nd edition), was a former union president.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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