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Panel addresses sweatshop labor

Giving germs to terminally ill patients, sexual intercourse and the return of Jesus were all analogies a colorful group of panelists used to describe the economic and moral issues of sweatshop labor at a forum Friday.

Titled "Sweatshops or Sweet Deals?", the four-member panel discussion--moderated by Michael Munger, chair of the political science department--focused on the positive and negative aspects of sweatshops, as well as the roles of consumers, governments, businesses and workers.

Peter Arcidiacono, assistant professor of economics, said sweatshop labor was better than no labor, drawing on his experience building houses in Mexico.

"We built this house, [with] no toilet, no running water.... We might consider it a slum, but man, they were happy with that house," Arcidiacono said. "If we didn't build that house, [it] wasn't going to get built."

Without sweatshops, Arcidiacono said, employees would not be paid anything. "Yes, the firms have taken advantage of the situation," he said. "But absent of that, we don't have those firms paying wages."

Efforts to improve sweatshop labor such as boycotts discourage firms from investing overseas and "screw" workers there, Arcidiacono added.

"Barring Jesus appearing to them, [firms] are going to continue to maximize their profits," he said. "The real solution to solving the sweatshop problem is for you all to go form firms down there and treat [workers] right."

Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, said there were other alternatives to sweatshop labor. "The question is, 'Can we, by imposing reasonable standards on these companies, improve the conditions for these workers without closing [the firms] down,'" he said.

Pointing to successful WRC efforts, Nova said improvement was possible and consumers could help. "Consumers in the U.S. have a great deal to say as to whether or not those conditions get better or worse," he said. Nova maintained that, given a choice, consumers would be willing to spend more money on products to guarantee better working conditions for employees.

Andrew Bernstein, adjunct professor of philosophy at Pace University, emphasized the role of government in creating sweatshop conditions and blamed communist governments for poverty.

"Statism is responsible for poverty," Bernstein said. "Government intervention is not the solution to third-world poverty. It is the cause. Capitalism... is the solution."

Instead of boycotting corporations, consumers should be boycotting "evil" communist countries such as China, Bernstein said.

"It is imperative that we vote everyday in the market for capitalism," he said. "There is every reason to buy Nike's products, and I do so proudly... We must question whether Nike must be in bed with the communists. Nike is not the problem. The communists are."

By investing in technology, Bernstein said, capitalists would increase labor productivity and raise wages.

Vasant Kaiwar, visiting assistant professor of history, did not view the issue that way. "Why, when the productivity of workers has undoubtedly increased, have wages fallen?" he asked. "Market fundamentalism just doesn't cut it anymore."

Part of the problem, he said, was the United States' support of corrupt regimes that allowed citizens to work in dangerous conditions. "Our human rights discourse stops at the factory doors."

To improve labor conditions, Kaiwar suggested enforcing global labor standards.

Berstein disagreed, viewing set labor standards as another form of government intervention. "That's like giving germs to someone who's terminally ill," he said.

After the panel, senior Aaron Windecker said that the panel raised thoughtful ideas, even if they did not resolve the issues. "I particularly liked Mr. Bernstein, his focus on capitalism and the culpability of governments rather than the corporations that go into these countries," he said.

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