A Dirty Job

A Dirty Job

Compared to scavenging in a toxic garbage dump, working in an oppressive sweatshop can seem like a cherished dream.

In this New York Times on-site video report, columnist Nicholas Kristof compellingly makes his case for not closing down sweatshops in poor countries, because they are a superior alternative to scavenging in garbage dumps.

“Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’” he says, “I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump in Phnom Penh. This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires. The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

“Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough. Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

“Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.”

By Nicholas D. Kristof
Producer: Kassie Bracken

Length: 4:42