Davos Newbies Home

So long Mahathir 

Is it really goodbye Dr Mahathir this time? He has apparently announced he will leave the premiership of Malaysia in October next year, but he also announced his resignation over the weekend until his acolytes convinced him to stay.

The most distasteful moment of my Davos career was hearing a stream of anti-Semitic invective from Mahathir in response to a question from Business Week’s Steve Shepard. Mahathir of course denied anti-Semitism but then launched into a diatribe against the international conspiracy of financiers.

In Malaysia itself I suspect the non-Chinese population, the Bumiputra, are so accustomed to Mahathir leadership that anything else in unthinkable. The minority Chinese ethnic population, however, which has been disadvantaged by Mahathir’s policy of positive discrimination in favour of the Bumis, will probably be glad to see the back of him. How much will change in his absence — if he is truly going to withdraw from power as well as position — is much harder to fathom.

I remember lamenting the absence of even a single decent bookshop in Kuala Lumpur on one visit. A prominent Malaysian executive, hearing my plaint, told me the only decent library in the city was held by the security services — courtesy of all the good books they had impounded.

In support of sweatshops 

Nicholas Kristof says the unsayable in The New York Times: “It’s catastrophic for muddle-minded liberals to join in and cudgel impoverished workers for whom a sweatshop job is the first step on life’s escalator.”

I remember the BBC report he cites which led to Nike leaving Cambodia. It did explain that the low-paid factory jobs were far preferable for Cambodian girls to the sex trade or staying in their impoverished villages. But the outcry that followed the accurate report overlooked those realities.

Phil Jones offers an intelligent reply to Kristof’s argument. I agree that the first condition — ensuring adequate health and safety standards, even in “sweatshops” — is fundamental. I know there have been documented cases of global corporations violating these standards, but from what I’ve seen in the developing world, multinationals are generally better upholders of standards than local companies. I don’t think this is altruism on their part. They are worried about reputational damage if they have woefully low standards.

As to the disparity between advocating openness for western manufacturers while slamming the door shut on the south’s agricultural exports, I couldn’t agree more. See Davos Newbies passim.

On Phil’s other points, there are no easy answers and he’s right to say there is need for more research. What I object to in less intelligent viewpoints is the arrogance that we need to save the world’s poor from exploitation by neo-colonialist corporations. That smacks of the “white man’s burden” fallacy.

New balls, please 

I’d like to spend more time than I do hitting a tennis ball. But I have to confess that I’ve never given much thought to its manufacture. Fortunately, Fran Abrams has looked into how tennis balls are made, appropriately for the start of Wimbledon. It’s a fascinating story, marred only by her assertion that “tennis balls are big business” — what’s remarkable is that such global efforts are worthwhile for a product that generates such trivial revenues.

4 thoughts on “Davos Newbies Home

  1. phil jones

    Lance, I realize that the Sweatshop article is *meant* to be controversial. But it’s pretty disingenuous. I’d have thought you’d have some slightly more sophisticated responses to it.

    Sweatshops can be criticised on 3 grounds : unhealthy, dangerous working conditions and mistreatment of workers (of which many cases are well documented); low wages; and young “underage” workers.

    Of the three, the first is most serious and inexcusable. Arguments of Kristof’s kind – that it’s OK because the alternative are worse – wouldn’t be acceptable in any other context. Compare “it’s good that pickpockets relieve you of your money, because otherwise you might get violently assaulted for it.” Given the choice we’d all prefer the pickpocket to the mugger, but this doesn’t excuse or make the pickpocket tolerable.

    Assuming we remain right to be critical of (and boycott) abusive and dangerous workplaces wherever they occur, then we do have some room for sensible thinking about well run, healthy employers of cheap, child labour.

    Of course if the wage is comparable or better than other forms of employment, in agriculture or construction, then we shouldn’t be too worried that it seems outrageously low by Western standards.

    There is a caveat. We should remember that many countries which are being encouraged to sell their workforce as cheap labour for Western manufacturers, are also countries where Western import restrictions on agricultural products keep their farming sectors from expanding and perhaps becoming richer, better employers.
    The same goes for the sex industry, where Western tourists are major consumers. If the West doesn’t tax Cambodian prostitution, but taxes Cambodian rice, aren’t we partly responsible for pushing the inhabitants in that direction?

    Finally there is an economic argument to be made as to whether it is good value for a nation’s children to be working in low-skilled industrial assembly. On the one hand, the argument can go, that an industrial phase is good for changing the economy of a nation, and bringing in technology and technological skills. On the other hand, young children going into sweatshops are potentially missing education. And in a time when the West believes it’s moving to a service oriented economy, it may be that kids in third world countries would be better off learning traditional crafts coupled with entrepreneurial and service skills on the street, than learning to punch clocks in factories.

    We desperately need good research as to, for example, whether workers in sweatshops do develop and leave to become manufacturing entrepreneurs or craftsmen; or whether they are precisely *so badly* educated and prepared for other work, that when the sweatshop closes they’re only fit for slavery in the sex industry?

  2. phil jones

    Lance, thanks for gracious response.

    Just a couple of points. You say I know there have been documented cases of global corporations violating these standards, but from what I’ve seen in the developing world, multinationals are generally better upholders of standards than local companies. I don’t think this is altruism on their part. They are worried about reputational damage if they have woefully low standards.

    I’m sure this is true. But don’t you think there’s *some* connection between the multi-nationals’ sensitivity and the vociferous complaints of anti-sweatshop campaigners? After all, if the “muddle-minded liberals” (not, I know, your expression), sat around thoughtlessly repeating the mantra : “hey, working in a sweatshop sucks, but it sure as hell beats the only alternative of being a starving sex slave with AIDS”; you can bet those same non-altruistic multinationals would be less worried about their reputations in the face of minor lapses in safety standards, worker abuse etc.

    Also I’m sure the problem with the “white man’s burden” is not that it’s a falacy that people in one part of the world should care about the suffering of people in another, and try to do something about it. The problem with WMB is the hypocracy of using the “civilizing” drive as an excuse for invading another part of the world, pressing its people into service, and extracting its resources. This is hardly an accusation to be thrown at anti-sweatshop campaigners (or even anti-capitalists) however simplistic or economically-naive they are.

  3. Lance Knobel

    There’s no doubt that the multinationals have generally improved their behaviour because of protest. All credit there.

    But I think Kristof makes an important point in saying that when Nike (or whomever) moves out of Cambodia, there aren’t a lot of alternative employers queuing to take their place. So the blanket opposition to sweatshops is something I have a problem with.

    On WMB, I’ve undoubtedly stretched the point. Fair cop, guv.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *