Powers ’15: Factory labor and social justice

Opinions Columnist

Throughout 2010, 14 employees of a factory owned by Foxconn, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturing company, committed suicide. As usual, American media sensationalized the incidents and called for improved treatment of workers. Following investigations by the factory’s customers, including Apple and HP, Foxconn responded to international pressure by significantly raising wages.

Every suicide is a tragedy, but, comparatively speaking, how indicative of bad working conditions is such a string of suicides? In 2010, Foxconn’s Shenzhen factory employed a total of three hundred thousand workers. This is a suicide rate of 4.7 in one hundred thousand.  According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Chinese national average in 2011 was 22.2 in one hundred thousand — nearly five times higher. Much as it does with the debate on gun control, the American media opted for the more profitable emotion-mongering over the more newsworthy statistical analysis.

In his article “In Praise of Cheap Labor,” economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman asserts that “bad jobs at bad wages are better than no jobs at all.”  He notes that cheap labor is the only advantage the developing world has over the incumbency of businesses in the first world, and that the elimination of this edge would lead to economic stagnation and a reversal of industrial growth in regions where it is needed most. Empirically, low-skill labor in the developing world is one of the most effective and sustainable anti-poverty measures, public or private.

Now, sometimes workers are not aware of the health hazards to which they are being exposed, just as there are also documented cases of forced labor. But excluding these rarer cases, many still believe that informed and consensual agreements can constitute immoral action. You’ll often hear the charged allegation of a business “taking advantage” of its workers. Some claim that by putting an offer on the table for someone to take voluntarily can be a violation of their rights. Such a view requires a counterintuitive — and I think implausible — understanding of rights.

If the right being violated is one to a certain standard of living or work, then this right was violated well before the introduction of these international companies. Allowing the continuation of pre-existing hardship in the developing world is not a violation of rights. If that were the case, then we would also necessarily need to think that these businesses were violating the rights of their future employees even before their factories moved overseas. Further, everyone in the international community as a whole — not just these for-profit private enterprises — would be equally responsible for the absence of financial aid.

So why is it then that many feel so attached to a view that entails such unreasonable conclusions? In Krugman’s words, “Unlike the starving subsistence farmer, the women and children in the sneaker factory are working at slave wages for our benefit — and this makes us feel unclean.”

I find it disheartening that, at Brown University in particular, playing the part of the obnoxious activist who racks up social justice points is so fashionable. We don’t need to find a scapegoat for all of human suffering. Sometimes external circumstances predestine adversity. It is a victimless crime to let “heartless businessmen” get rich and for us to buy cheap products while simultaneously combating poverty in the developing world.

While we might reasonably believe it to be morally superior for businesses to provide better wages and working conditions for their workers, the narrative of parasitic businessmen dragging the developing world down is disingenuous. If anything, it’s the workers who need the businesses — quite literally — to survive. Perhaps we feel that they “deserve” better, but that should not stop us from recognizing the substantial benefits their current jobs engender.

Beyond the issue itself, it is informative to examine those individuals who condemn these business practices. The vast majority of those who protest conditions in factories such as those owned by Foxconn enjoy the phones, laptops and other goods produced by such conditions with no more than a passing admonition to maintain an image of social conscientiousness. While hypocrisy is not direct evidence of invalid arguments or false conclusions, it is important to understand that genuine moral outrage is never a matter of convenience.

At Brown, these individuals and their student organizations will often affectedly call for a “critical discussion” on a complex and controversial issue without any sincere intention to consider the opposition view. They reaffirm their beliefs and perpetuate the echo chamber that makes up Brown’s homogeneous political landscape. This process is repeated ad nauseam and the conclusions to which it leads are not grounded in rational thought, but rather are accepted on the basis of the endless parroting of emotional platitudes. And many students don’t even bother with this transparent facade of self-doubt. Those involved in the Ray Kelly protests were openly uninterested in the possibility that their views were fallible.

Jon Stewart said it best: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” It is not a virtue to support ‘social justice’ without thinking through the issue. This argument should demonstrate that Brown is teeming with individuals who are more interested in pushing their own rabble-rousing agendas than focusing on the pursuit of truth. This behavior is intellectually stifling and detrimental to the mission of our university.


As a teenager, the mother of Andrew Powers ’15 worked in a Chinese Timex factory to support her family. Andrew can be reached at

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

  1. angry comment section regular says:

    our intellectual savior has arrived at last!!!! let us all bow down to Andrew Powers ’15, whose scathing criticisms of huge factions of the Brown community will forever change how these people think and act!!!!

  2. Reasonable students unite says:

    With editorial after editorial eviscerating the poseur liberal, intellectually vacuous archetype so visible at Brown, I have hope that it just may not be so prevalent. That it is visible rather than widespread. These open critiques were not happening even a year ago. I have to wonder if we have a silent majority at Brown who until the Ray Kelly incident all independently believed they were alone. Perhaps that incident was a catalyzing moment for everyone who was previously afraid to speak out against their visible and obnoxious peers, (afraid to become social pariahs) and now there is a changing tide.

  3. Buttz Henderson says:

    oh my god

  4. Proud Anti-Feminist says:

    Once upon a time, women (like poor nations today) did not have a lot of human capital. They were good at cooking, cleaning, and sewing, because this is what they had been trained to do. One might even say that within the household, this was their competitive advantage. Rather than support these women in their attempts to educate themselves, earn and keep wages outside the household, and generally gain intellectual and financial independence, countless fathers and husbands continued to assert that this was the natural order–not their fault! And a woman could technically choose not to get married, or even get a divorce under extraordinary circumstances, so it wasn’t morally hazy at all. I mean it wasn’t her husband’s fault that she could’t leave with the kids for financial reasons–without him, she would end up starving in a homeless shelter due to job market discrimination and her lack of high-skilled job training. So much worse off! She needed him and he was happy with her. Clearly, there was no problem with this arrangement, and that is why feminism never really took off. Since this is a really similar debate, I hope eventually everyone will realize that we have no more obligation to enter into fair contracts with third world firms than we do to treat women tolerably well.

    • Intrigued onlooker says:

      Did you read the article you posted? Here’s a quote from that article: “It remains true that given their low productivity, countries like Bangladesh can’t be competitive with advanced countries unless they pay their workers much less, and provide much worse working conditions too”

  5. Saudii Garcia says:

    this is cute. I love how this person’s view is totally skewed towards China, whose economy is booming even as its workers are committing suicide. However, before China, there was Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. I doubt those workers, squeezed to the max and then discarded for even CHEAPER labor, would be singing the praises of these corporations. on a side note, please take Globalization and Social Conflict with P. Heller and get some historicity into your argument. There is an entire literature on development studies that you are misrepresenting. It appears as though academics are YOUR hobby. Why are these countries resorting to offering their workers as cheap labor in the first place?

    • smart person says:

      literally zero logical argument made lol

    • Hey, you get what you asked for. I’ll wager the red diaper baby that teaches, “Globalization and Social Conflict” doesn’t mention the fact that the jobs first sent to cheap labor Mexico, were stolen from struggling US citizens. Mexico and it’s not hard working people, and it’s corrupt culture built on Hispanic invention of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, genocide and racism, which imported more than 9 million African slaves it worked to death, rationalized stealing those jobs from others, so they’ve no right to complain when what they did to others is done to them. I’ll also bet that he, she or it, doesn’t mention that those countries that have benefitted from outsourcing, created their own massive, dire poverty through the Marxist ideologies of communism and socialism, red diaper baby academics, like those at Brown propagandize for, using lies about liberating workers, when what they really mean is, denying said workers the right to self determination, and imposing perpetual poverty. Do you morons ever stop to ask the moronic leftist orgs you regugitate for, why they take funding and marching orders from the very globalists you and they purport to disdain? Perhaps having the courage of the convictions you claim to have is too much of a strain on your already substandard brain cells. China, Mexico, Brazil, India, et al, all communist/socialist countries, view their citizenries as property, the legacy of communist/socialist countries is genocide, the Marxist disease killed more innocent civilians, over a hundred million of them in 50 years. While the capitalism, that you moronic special snowflakes sneer at, lifted the poor out of poverty, provided quality public education (before the left got it’s claws into it), and flourished. You don’t give a damn about the poor, if you did, you wouldn’t spout the pathetically weak lies you do. No one who truly cares about the poor could rationalize the fraud that you do. You’re just another Marxist whore who thinks she’s going to get rich subjugating others.

  6. Ian Trupin says:

    I always have trouble understanding people coming from this line of reasoning (exemplified by Nicholas Kristoff’s impassioned defense of sweatshops)–that because there may be fates worse then working in such places that people supporting worker-led movements for better conditions are misguided. The anti sweatshop movement holds companies accountable for the treatment of people working on their factories. And as someone whose family has apparently overcome similar conditions to achieve social mobility, I’m surprised and a bit disappointed that the author of this piece can’t just celebrate how many more factory workers’ children will now have access to the opportunities he had as a result of improving conditions brought about through successful organizing.

    • smart person says:

      ignore argument, instead create anecdotal self reference

    • smart person says:

      sent from my iPhone

    • antiquarian says:

      You’re exactly the kind of tedious moral exhibitionist Powers is talking about. These are slave wages only in a country with an OECD cost of living. In China they’re princely– but that’s neither morally convenient to people like you, financially convenient to the media nor politically convenient to politicians.

      “Explainable to the stupidest, most emotional people” has become the sine qua non of public issues these days for all three groups. Its presence in places like Brown which ought to be smithies where ideas are pounded out in controversy and intellectual rigor is tantamount to rot at the heart of the educational system.

    • Actually, no they don’t, in fact, in the late 1990s, another hypocrite Marxist elite, Medea Benjamin (Code Pink) was caught cutting a deal with Phil Knight of Nike, she told him she didn’t care what he did to the workers, as long as he stopped dumping wastewater into the river near the factory in China. The poor dupes who had volunteered for her fake humanitarian dog and pony show tried exposing her, but her fellow big fraudsters on the left censored them.

  7. IR & Econ double concentrator says:

    This is sadly misguided. You can’t just pick and choose quotes from academic literature without understanding their overarching arguments.

    I would also advise the author to check out other readings on the issue, so that he too may be informed about both sides. For more information regarding international labor solidarity, check out Dani Rodrik’s “Tensions between Trade and Domestic Social Arrangements” and Rachel Kaplinsky’s “Globalization, Poverty, and Inequality.”

    Further research will help you streamline your thoughts into an educated argument rather than a misfire like this that combines gratuitous quoting from academic theorists with occasional interjections of your personal qualms regarding campus activism.

    Do your homework, kthnxbai.

    • smart person says:

      ignore argument randomly reference books

    • Intrigued onlooker says:

      Interesting post. Are you familiar with the three greek pillars of persuasive argument? One is called ethos, often referred to as credibility. It seems you seek to compromise the author’s ethos by first calling into question his quote use, and then establishing your own. What’s interesting is that you do so without actually saying anything about how the quotes have been misused. A small amount of poking around, even just reading the article posted below by “Ugh.” confirms (to me at least) that Krugmen’s words were not taken out of context. Another one of the three pillars is logos, or logic. This is where your argument fails. To argue that one author’s words are taken out of context, and to sight literature written by a different author (or authors) as evidence, seems to lack a logical thread.

    • smart person says:

      Sent from my iPhone

  8. I have a huge problem with the hypocrites and liars at Brown, I have no problem believing they’re disconnected and truly disinterested in poverty being aleviated in China, etc,, because they have so much contempt for the poor in the US. The fact is, these frauds are the sons, daughters, grandkids of the corporate interests who own those companies.. if they truly considered the profits to be filthy lucre, they wouldn’t be living in luxury on it. They seek to impose the Marxist ideology that trapped majorities in slavery in China, and other communist countries, here in the US, they no doubt aspire to be the parasitic elites in the new communist plantation state.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at