Unfair

The Un-PC Truth About Beyonce’s ‘Sweatshop’

Outrage at the conditions endured by workers at the Indian factory making Beyoncé’s clothing line ignores more complex truths about the local economy.

05.21.16 4:10 AM ET

With her arms crossed and left hip thrust to one side, Beyoncé stands in the center of a basketball court in the rain, her lips curled in a sultry, let’s-play-ball smile.

So goes the beginning of a promo video for her new fitness venture, Ivy Park, and the beginning of a Business Beyoncé blitzkrieg which saw the HBO-televised release of her visual album, Lemonade, and the pop comet embark on her Formation World Tour.

The video sees Beyoncé stretching, running, dancing, swimming, biking in various logo bodysuits, basketball-mesh ops, and other pieces from her joint “athleisure” clothing venture with Topshop.

Speaking with Elle magazine, her first major interview in three years, Beyoncé explained that Ivy Park wasn’t just a fitness line but a women-empowering ethos “to celebrate every woman and the body she’s in while striving to be better.”

However, Ivy Park’s message of empowerment backfired earlier this week, when The Sun reported that “poverty-stricken seamstresses” working at a Sri Lankan factory where Beyoncé’s new clothing line is made earn £4.30 ($8.47) a day.

An anonymous 22-year-old woman told the British tabloid she could barely survive on her monthly salary of 18,500 rupees ($380), which surpasses the country’s monthly minimum wage of 13,500 rupees ($202).

She described miserable working conditions: sewing clothes in cramped quarters for nearly 10 hours a day, Monday through Friday, with a 30-minute lunch break.

The woman said she also works Saturdays and overtime during the week, and shares a 10-by-10-foot room with her sister in a nearby boarding house. “All we do is work, sleep, work, sleep,” she said.

It’s the kind of story that sends Westerners into paroxysms of self-flagellation and subsequent moral righteousness about the injustice of it all: greedy multinational corporations making billions of dollars in profits while the labor-intensive, low-wage garment factories they employ exploit women and children.

The irony that these oppressed women are producing clothes for a brand that claims to empower women is the cherry on top of corrupt global capital.

To opponents of globalization and anti-sweatshop campaigners, these stories represent everything wrong with the West’s fashion and entertainment industries—namely, fat-cat companies and clueless celebrity designers sitting pretty in their high towers, making billions from a system that oppresses workers in developing companies.

But the system is not that black and white, and the ethical lines aren’t that clear.

The Sun is in the business of delivering sensational stories to its readers, many of whom probably don’t know how much $380 a month is worth to women in Sri Lanka, or that “living wages” are hard to quantify and money-making alternatives are considerably worse than factory jobs (women wouldn’t choose to work in factories if they had better options).

Those outraged by the story should consider that developing countries can only compete with First World industries because they offer cheap labor; that competing with those industries results in industrial and economic growth; and so on.

Ever since the deadly 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza, which killed more than 1,100 garment factory workers in Bangladesh, we’ve seen efforts in the West and in Third World countries to protect worker rights and make sure factories pass routine safety inspections.

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Still, anti-sweatshop campaigners are right that the industry continues to pose risks to its workers. But refusing to buy Beyoncé’s Ivy Park clothing because it’s made by sweatshop workers is not the answer. In fact, it only hurts those workers more.

“We have to ask ourselves: what would these women be doing if they didn’t work in a garment factory? Would their lives be better? Absolutely not,” said Mushfiq Mobarak, Professor of Economics at Yale University and co-author of a 2015 study in the Journal of Development Economics, “Manufacturing Growth and the Lives of Bangladeshi Women.” (PDF)

The main employment alternative for garment factory workers in Third World countries is agriculture and subsistence agriculture.

As one of the Sri Lankan women working at the MAS Holdings sweatshop told The Sun, she and her sister left home in a remote village 200 miles away, where their father is a farmer, because the factory paid more than the farm.

“We had to come and work here because our father could not feed us and because there are no jobs there,” she said. “We don’t have much spare money and what we do have we send back to our family.”

Mobarak’s study found that girls aged 12 to 18 who work at garment factories in Bangladesh are 29 percent less likely to have children than their peers in rural villages. Similarly, women factory workers between 10 and 23 years old are 17 percent more likely to work outside the home before marriage.

Sri Lanka is a relatively small player in the clothing industry next to countries like China. Its economy is largely agrarian, but apparel represents 45 percent of its exports and provides jobs for roughly 300,000 people. According to a recent report from the World Bank (PDF), wages and working conditions in Sri Lanka are generally better than in other South Asian countries.

Mobarak said women employed at garment factories throughout South Asia have more opportunities and independence than those who work on their family farms. Their parents have less incentive to send their daughters to school, according to Mobarak, because their time is better spent helping out at home. 

Conversely, working in garment factories incentivizes women to go to school, since most factories require that their workers have basic literacy, numeracy, and cognitive skills in order to follow directions from supervisors and work in a production line.

“When factory jobs become available in these countries, we see returns in skills that people develop,” Mobarak told The Daily Beast, meaning they become more eligible for jobs. “If a young woman gets an education in the 5th grade, then her labor opportunities change.”

These are all important indirect benefits to working in factories, but they don’t preclude the need to address slave-like conditions where workers who attempt to organize unions and establish collective bargaining rights are fired by their managers.

The most brutal factory managers have been known to sexually exploit female workers, house them in crumbling buildings or fire traps, refuse them bathroom breaks, expose young children to poisonous chemicals, and enforce double shifts.

“We need to figure out how to incentivize buyers and retailers from the U.S. and the U.K. to invest in factory safety,” said Mobarak.

But it’s not as simple as it sounds. If a company like Walmart invests in factory safety and its competitors don’t, the competitors will do better. “Retailers need to collaborate and jointly invest,” Mobarak said, “so that not everyone who is investing is at a competitive disadvantage of having to sell more expensive clothes.”

Avoiding potential PR disasters is another incentive for buyers and retailers to invest in factory safety. Nike learned this the hard way when, in the early 1990s, there were reports that factory workers in Indonesia employed by a Nike subcontractor earned less than the minimum wage.

One report documented abuses under another Nike subcontractor in Vietnam, where the factory owner forced women who didn’t wear regulation shoes to run around outside until they collapsed from exhaustion.

In 1999, after boycotts and relentless bad press, Nike rebounded by creating the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit group that brings companies and labor representatives together to establish independent factory auditors and a code of conduct that includes paying workers minimum wage or more.

“There are many cases where companies can do much more without sacrificing their profits and their success and they don’t,” said Ann Harrison, Professor of Economics at the Wharton School of Business.

Still, multinational corporations have to be careful to avoid unintended consequences in attempting to improve conditions and wages for factory workers.

“They want to improve working conditions and raise wages without chasing the factories away, which would eliminate job opportunities for these women in Sri Lanka,” said Harrison.

Anti-sweatshop campaigns often argue that even if garment workers are making more than the minimum wage, they’re not making a “living wage.” But Harrison said living wages in developing countries are hard to define.

“Countries tend to follow a living wage if they’re the ones imposing minimum wages,” she said. “If multinational corporations require that factories pay their workers double the minimum wage, the factories will be forced to cut jobs or go out of business entirely.”

One way for companies to be branded sweat-free by paying a “living wage” is to outsource manufacturing from a country where labor is more productive. But that puts workers at the factory they used to employ out of jobs.

Labor tends to be less productive in poorer countries whose governments don’t offer secure property rights and economic freedom to its citizens.

Lack of economic freedom raises the cost of doing business, which results in low productivity for each dollar invested; on the flip side, workers can apply their skills better in environments that protect property rights and offer more economic freedom.

Sweatshops are low rungs on the ladder of economic development, and a country can only reach later stages of economic development under healthy conditions for industrial growth.

Indeed, every country whose wealth didn’t come primarily from oil has gone through a sweatshop stage of development. Like factory workers in today’s Third World countries, the ‘Mill Girls’ working for textile corporations in 19th century Lowell, Massachusetts moved from rural towns to the city for a better life.

Something else for sweatshop critics to consider: when Third World countries develop as a result of manufacturing growth, that increases the demand for better working conditions inside those countries.

Factory workers in Bangladesh, where more than half the population lives on $2 a day, are too concerned about putting food on the table to make demands on their employers.

“We need to allow countries to develop so that there’s internal demand for government change and employment regulations,” said Mobarak. “In India, no one talked about quality of life and pollution 15 years ago. Today there’s a middle class in India, and that’s what they’re paying attention to.”