The good, the bad, and the ugly of sweatshops

Tamarra Newbern, News Reporter

The Dr. Benjamin Powell, director of the Free Market Institute and professor of economics at Rawls College of Business, spoke to the UIS community at an ECCE event on Feb. 23 in Brookens Auditorium on the issue of sweatshops worldwide.

Normally when Americans hear the word “sweatshop,” a wide range of descriptions comes to mind. Students during the event associated sweatshops with: long working hours, uncleanliness, low pay, poor working conditions, and more, which seems to be a standard perception of what sweatshops are to most Americans.

Yet Dr. Powell wanted to show what really lies behind the doors of sweatshops worldwide and how the employees truly feel.

Powell touched on the fact that it is not the fault of the individuals who work in sweatshops for their inadequate pay, how the employees feel toward their situation, and what policies that people can pursue to help make them better.

Powell stated that working in a sweatshop is a “means end type of defense not to the lifestyle but for the people.”

The people who work in sweatshops are there because they want to and have few available opportunities. They believe it’s the best option for them.

As first world citizens, it’s not such a clean-cut idea as taking away what they do as their best option.

Powell stated, “We want to give them more options and not jeopardize what they do as their best option.”

Powell argued that we don’t necessarily need to not purchase what they’re making, because the less the companies make “the less [the employees] make.”

Therefore, it could result in many people having to resort to a lesser-paying job that has even worse working conditions.

Powell went to Guatemala once before to a sweatshop and saw firsthand the long working hours, poor working conditions, the inability to receive vacation time, and the presence of verbal abuse.

So he asked them questions such as, “Would you be willing to work for lower pay if we improve [the working conditions]?” More than 50 percent said they wouldn’t make that trade.

To Powell, the situation is ultimately the fault of poor governments and a slow process of economical development.

Powell argued that their situation can improve if we continue to buy their products, open up trade barriers, and offer more work visas so that the impoverished individuals can immigrate to the United States.

Powell added that improvements are not available overnight, as many countries, including the U.S., gradually overcame the industrial period which included working conditions comparable to sweatshops.

After the event, Powell explained his reason behind why he studied the topic of sweatshops for many years by stating, “I have been annoyed with people’s perceptions about [sweatshops], and there was no systematic evidence.”

Powell added, “A student in my class in 2004 came up to me and said they were interested in doing a research project for their term paper and wanted something that might be publishable at the end. I suggested pulling the wage data on this stuff and spending time with the newspapers. Once we did that, it kind of snowballed.”

Powell was able to publish papers himself and started getting calls to conduct speaking events. He continued writing papers, eventually deciding to write a book that pulled everything together.

UIS Associate Professor William Kline, who emceed the event, knows Powell fairly well and asked him to speak about this specific topic. Once everything was set to go, Kline helped organize the event along with others.

After the event, Kline said, “He came in with a lot of data. He did his own research. I learned a lot.”

Powell’s book, “Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy,” can be found online at various websites such as