If you give a man a fish part 2: Sweatshops and bootstraps

In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry sailed with his small flotilla into Tokyo Harbor.  Forcing Japan to open itself to the world.  Now some folk claim that this was for the purpose of exploiting Japan and insisting that Japan buy Western products.  It was actually more complicated than that.  Among other things when shipwrecked sailors washed up on Japanese shores, the Japanese killed them.  That was a perfectly valid justification for war in those days.  It would be a justification for war today.

In any case, Japan was opened up to the West.  Japan came into its new relationship with the west at a decided disadvantage.  Because of their former isolation the Industrial Revolution had passed them by.  Japan had to play catch-up if it was going to compete with the rest of the world from a position of parity.

The process began simply.  They began providing cheap labor, both in Japan and exported.  It wasn’t just cheap Chinese labor that built the railroads in the American West.  There were a lot of Japanese toiling right alongside them.  In addition to exported workers, Japan itself needed to industrialize.  Much like Britains Industrial Revolution, they started in textiles.  Textile mills, operated mainly by young women who “gave” their wages to their fathers.  They went almost directly from hand powered looms to coal fired steam.  Miserable, dangerous work for low wages the workers were not even allowed to keep.

But.  As miserable as this work was, it was better than working in the rice paddies.

It also provided a stepping stone to actual industrialization.  This provided an avenue for economic growth leading to improvement, at first gradual then not so gradual, in the standard of living of the average Japanese person.

A third benefit was that it broke feudalism and its caste system.  Economic and social mobility became much more achievable (achievable at all in social terms).  Eventually, this economic growth that started with the functional equivalent of sweatshops has made Japan one of the economic powerhouses, ranking the third largest economy in the world.

Japan was the first of the Asian nations to take that path.  Others, for various reasons, were delayed in starting.  However, in every case of a nation growing from abject poverty to some level of economic success they all start at one place:  cheap labor.  They cannot compete with the skill and productivity of more developed nation, not yet.  All they have to offer to start with is low costs.  But in the process, they learn.  They develop the skills to be more productive.  They also tend to break old lines of hereditary aristocracy–who ones father was becomes less important than can one do the job.  Oh, vestiges hang on, but the potential of a person of “low birth” to improve his or her position increases dramatically.

And these “poor” “exploited” workers?  Do you think there are press gangs going and dragging people kicking and screaming into the factories?  Do you think they have barbed wire and machine guns to make the people stay in the factories?  Chained to their work stations?

No.  The people running the factories simply offer better pay, and better working conditions than would be available to those workers otherwise.

Look, these “sweatshops” may look horrid from our perspective but they’re a step up, generally a big one, over what would be available to the people working in them otherwise.  Try working in a third-world subsistence farm sometime while being a single drought away from starvation to see just how heavenly reliable work with a reliable (if small) income with which to reliably feed your family can be.

I would love to be able to wave a magic wand and bring everybody in the world up to First World standards of living.  Reality, however, doesn’t work that way.  It takes time and there’s a learning curve.  Take away a nation’s ability to start up that learning curve and they can never get to the top.

Modern industrial production is not something learned overnight.  There are institutional habits and skills that take time to develop.  And until they are developed folk in those nations only have one thing to offer:  cheap labor.

Take away that competitive edge by forbidding Western businesses from “exploiting” (read “improving the lives of”) cheap labor and you take away their ability to pull themselves up out of their current levels.

And you condemn them to crushing poverty…forever

5 thoughts on “If you give a man a fish part 2: Sweatshops and bootstraps”

  1. And you condemn them to crushing poverty…forever

    At times (like on days ending in “y”) I can’t help but wonder if that’s intentional. Countries that aren’t poor tend to be disinclined to take “charity” from those more concerned about doing well than doing good in various NGOs (and some GOs, at that).


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