"How Much It Sucks to Be a Sri Lankan Worker Making Beyoncé's New Clothing Line," reads a recent headline on Vice's "Broadly" channel.
Well, it probably sucks, a lot. But 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 many Sri Lankans 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 who make the singer's new activewear brand, Ivy Park, are nothing more than "slaves" who earn 64 cents per hour. One sewing-machine operator at the MAS Holdings factory says she is unable to survive on the basic wage of 18,500 rupees a month ($126). A seamstress in the factory 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 brands like it, into proper context.
Trading Economics expects the gross average nominal monthly income of a Sri Lankan to be about 9,000 rupees (about $61) this quarter. So, the sewing-machine operator, though not living on Jay Z levels of subsistence, is faring better than most of her neighbors. For her and thousands of her fellow laborers, working for Beyonce offers a higher salary than one they'd have to live with if she weren't ridiculously famous or ridiculously wealthy.
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 her Wal-Mart clothing line, which Wal-Mart produced, was made in Honduran factories that employed underage workers. At the time, the average apparel worker earned 31 cents per hour in the Central American nation, while one-fifth of the world's population lived on less than $1 a day. 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 play—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, if you stop these companies, those poor Central American kids will simply return to their idyllic lives in the countryside or head off to top-notch educational institutions. Those who are subcontracted to make Ivy Park clothing at MAS work there for a reason.
Vice reached out to Dr. Kanchana Ruwanpura of the University of Edinburgh, a Sri Lanka garment-industry expert, no doubt expecting her to describe some soul-crushing hellhole. But it got a pretty tepid response. "MAS are essentially top of the range in terms of labour conditions in Sri Lanka," she says. "They're brilliant factories in terms of the build space and the attention they usually pay to the codes they work with. However, I would say that when it comes to wages and freedom of association, MAS don't do a very good job."
So, after having to grapple with two inconvenient facts—that salaries at MAS are better than prevailing wages in Sri Lanka, and that the factory is probably a relatively modern and safe place to work—the Vice reporter drops a debatable proposition on the reader. "Disturbingly, MAS workers are not allowed to unionize, despite the obvious benefits unions bring."
I hope private-sector workers in Sri Lanka will be free to organize—or not to organize—one day. But the formation of unions now would almost certainly undermine MAS's bid to make Western sportswear, and those jobs would move to Malaysia or Bangladesh or Pakistan. Wherever those jobs go, Beyoncé—who is running a business, not a charity—is an inadvertent force of good.
In fact, if you want to help the world's impoverished, you should probably buy her products. The more demand there is for tight-fitting, overpriced celebrity clothing lines, the more factories there will be for Sri Lankans to work in. As those workers have more choices, salaries will rise, and so will quality of life. This competition will impel employers to increase productivity, and if Sri Lanka doesn't revert to its old ways the economy will grow. The children of these workers will turn to white-collar professions. And before you know it, factories will be taken over by automatons, and the Sri Lankan middle class will grumble about how the Indonesians are stealing their jobs.
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