Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 17, 2009

Nicholas Kristof and sweatshops

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

The Sweat of his Labor: Kristof and the global apparel industry

By Ken Silverstein


I have an article in the January issue of Harper’s called “Shopping for sweat: The human cost of a two-dollar T-shirt,” which looks at the apparel industry in Cambodia. That country promotes sells itself, with the help of major apparel companies that source from there (like Gap Wal-Mart, Nike and Target) as a model apparel producer. Two years ago, USA Today published an article about how the country had “position[ed] itself as the sweatshop-free producer in a fiercely competitive global clothing market”; Cambodia, a Levi’s executive told the newspaper, “is a special country.”

Despite this pleasing reputation, the labor situation in Cambodia is as bad as in other cheap labor havens. According to a 2008 survey, apparel workers there get paid an average of 33 cents an hour, lower than anywhere in the world but Bangladesh.

My article examines the work of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, one of the foremost advocates of cheap labor in the Third World. “Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about ‘labor standards,’ I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh,” he wrote last January, in his inimitable prose style that resembles nothing so much as a den mother addressing a troop of Brownies. “The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn . . . Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.” For families living in the dump, “a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty,” and attempts by Obama to push for “living wages” for apparel workers in the Third World would merely ratchet up production costs for industry and lead to factory shutdowns and layoffs. “The central challenge in the poorest countries,” he wrote, “is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.”

This column was remarkably similar to one Kristof wrote in 1998 from Indonesia (though at least in that one there was an absence of forlorn rats). ” In the slums in Indonesia and in Thailand, many workers even speak of sweatshop jobs as their greatest aspiration,” he wrote. “Here in the Indonesian capital, Mrs. Tratiwoon stood barefoot recently in the vast garbage dump where she makes a living scavenging through the rubbish and described her dreams for her 3-year-old son: She wants him to grow up to work in a sweatshop.”

Incidentally, Kristof’s speakers’ bureau, APB, says his typical fee is approximately $30,000. Hence, for an hour during which he offers “a compassionate glimpse” into global poverty and gives voice to the voiceless,” as his APB profile puts it, Kristof pockets what a Cambodian apparel worker would make in about 50 years. Nice work, if you can get it.

* * * *

What I wrote on the topic: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/06/06/nicholas-kristof-joan-robinson-and-sweatshops/


  1. Kristof thinks he is the only one who has seen or knows people from these type of slums; from this basis he can lecture naive middle-class liberals in the West. A rapidly shrinking group that provides his target audience.

    Comment by purple — December 17, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Well played on bringing in his speaking fee. I never would have thought of that but it really pushes the point home.

    Comment by thoughtbasket — December 17, 2009 @ 10:29 pm

  3. Kristof really is a sick fuck.

    Comment by tim — December 18, 2009 @ 7:25 am

  4. Kristof = Hypocritical piece of shite!

    Comment by Larry Gambone — December 20, 2009 @ 3:58 am

  5. Just found this now. Thanks for posting. Saint Kristof is a serious problem for Cambodia, and anywhere else he travels. Here’s a piece I wrote on the same topic a few months earlier, where I point out that Kristof could be charged with human trafficking (it’s sad that organizations like Not For Sale are using his celebrity, since it legitimizes his actions). Many thanks, again. His practices need to be shut down. http://erikwdavis.wordpress.com/2009/01/15/a-human-trafficker-defends-cambodian-sweatshops/

    Comment by erikwdavis — December 20, 2012 @ 2:55 pm

  6. […] for an hour, Nick Kristof travels the globe rescuing sex workers by getting them arrested and then attempting to find them jobs in sweatshops to produce our cheap clothing. Oh, he also makes a lot of money talking to people, though his $25,000-$50,000 speaking fee is a […]

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  7. […] within our own relatively rich nation. The solution to disinvestment in the third world is not to exploit more third-world workers with jobs that involve poisoning, sexual harassment and scandalously low pay; the continued success […]

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