| First, you don't seem to see the need for labor laws? |
I didn't say anything about labor laws in general. Only specifically labor laws that try to enforce things that won't work in a particular situation.
When and where were working conditions ever better for workers before we got unions?
We have had unions for quite some time. They where only one of many changes, and not the decisive one. If you have unions, but primitive technology, a lack of physical capital, and low productivity workers, you will have poor working conditions and lower wages, than if you have no unions, but more advanced technology, a lot more built up capital, and very productive workers.
They could afford to make sure the people who worked at their factories were treated well.
The workers are treated well, by contemporary Chinese standards. And its not Apple that's treating them, its the local supplier. Apple can go after particularly bad examples, but if they stop using them as a supplier the workers lose their jobs. If the workers would have preferred not having the job to having jobs with the particular conditions they had, they would have quit. Getting them fired doesn't help them.
The suppliers completive advantage is low cost (not likely the lowest cost of all possible suppliers, but the lowest or near lowest of those that are sophisticated enough, and considered reliable). Force higher pay and American type conditions on them, and the supplier would likely no longer be competitive.
Large companies working with Chinese suppliers (or suppliers in poorer countries than China), can and do push improvements in labor conditions, but there is a limit. They don't have total control over what the suppliers do, and the suppliers have to do things cheap enough to remain competitive. Even with those limitations, the employees of suppliers for American, Japanese, European, Australian, Canadian, etc. companies, tend to have better, often much better, conditions that other local workers, and the conditions improve over time. China is moving out of the sweatshop stage faster than countries like the US and the UK did, already more and more manufacturing in China is being automated, they like the "Western" countries before them, are now "losing" manufacturing jobs (even as their manufacturing output increases). Relatively soon (at least if their amazing growth continues, which far from certain), they will move past that. Countries like Vietnam, and Bangladesh are behind China, but they can also move past this stage. Just not overnight.
The Case for Sweatshops
by David R. Henderson (Research Fellow)
Candida Rosa Lopez, an employee in a Nicaraguan garment factory, works long hours over a sewing machine at less than a dollar an hour. Interviewed recently by a Miami Herald reporter, Ms. Lopez has a message for people in the United States and other wealthy countries who are nervous about buying goods from "sweatshops": "I wish more people would buy the clothes we make."
Contrary to what you have heard, sweatshops in third-world countries are a good deal for the people who work in them. Why? Because work, other than slave labor, is an exchange. A worker chooses a particular job because she thinks herself better off in that job than at her next-best alternative. Most of us would regard a low-paying job in Nicaragua or Honduras as a lousy job. But we're not being asked to take those jobs. Those jobs are the best options those workers have, or else they would quit and work elsewhere. You don't make someone better off by taking away the best of a bunch of bad choices.
Many workers in third-world sweatshops have left even harder, lower-paying jobs in agriculture to move to garment factories. Moreover, sweatshops are a normal step in economic development. Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, and Hong Kong all had sweatshop jobs thirty years ago. They don't now because workers in those countries have acquired skills and employers have accumulated capital. That's what will happen in Honduras, Nicaragua, and other poor countries—if we only let it.
What happens when people persuade companies not to hire children to work long hours? Oxfam, the British charity, reported that when factory owners in Bangladesh were pressured to fire child laborers, thousands of the children became prostitutes or starved.
Yet the National Labor Committee's executive director, Charles Kernaghan, goes around the country attacking sweatshops and trying to put legal barriers in the way of people buying from sweatshops. Robert Reich, former U.S. labor secretary under President Clinton, pressured Reebok International and Sears Roebuck to get ShinWon, their South Korean subcontractor in Honduras, to lay off fifty teenage girls. He apparently did not ask, or care, what happened to them after they lost their jobs. Why are Kernaghan and Reich hurting the people they claim to care about? Simple. The people they really care about are unionized garment workers in the United States; the NLC is funded by U.S. unions. The garment workers lost on NAFTA and lost on GATT. This is their last-ditch effort to prevent foreign competition.
The next time you feel guilty for buying clothes made in a third-world sweatshop, remember this: you're helping the workers who made that clothing. The people who should feel guilty are those who argue against, or use legislation to prevent us, giving a boost up the economic ladder to members of the human race unlucky enough to have been born in a poor country. Someone who intentionally gets you fired is not your friend.