development economics social justice

Where does the spiral of bad jobs stop?

I read this article about call centres the other day on the BBC, and it got me thinking. Apparently, workers are deserting Indian centres, claiming the long and anti-social hours and stress are no longer worth doing for the poor pay and the lack of career prospects.

Stoke on Trent also had call centres, and friends of mine worked there as students, quitting for exactly the same reasons. The call centres moved to India to take advantage of a cheap labour force, but the jobs are still unpleasant, even in India. As Indian workers refuse to take the work, the call centres will have to move on somewhere else.

The same is true of any bad job. In the early days of industrialisation, the terrible jobs that make things cheap were right here at home, in the Victorian factories of Manchester and Sheffield. Long hours, low wages, poor health and safety, child labour, we had all of these in the UK at one time. We invented the sweatshop, and tested it on the urban poor of our northern cities. Then we moved it to America, and they passed it to Japan, and it has slowly moved East through Asia.

It’s simple development theory, that economies move from agriculture to industry to services. You learn that at school. A more elaborate version was proposed by Japanese economist Kaname Akamatsu, called the ‘flying geese model‘, where the lead economy breaks new ground and then moves on.


Japan used to make clothes. When they started producing steel, South Korea started making clothes. When Japan started making electronic appliances, Korea started producing steel. There was a gap for a clothes manufacturer, which Taiwan promptly filled. As Japan’s economy has advanced, Thailand and Malaysia have come in with garment production, and the latest round of development has seen the sweatshops move to Vietnam. The graph shows this progression*. As Jeffrey Sachs says in ‘The End of Poverty’, “the sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty.” You are not expected to stay at that level forever.

This is all fine and dandy, except that the rubbish jobs at the bottom of the pile are still oppressive and inhuman. It doesn’t matter that it represents a stage of development that a country will pass through. For the generation who must live through that stage, development is a curse and not a blessing.

Besides, where does the spiral stop? When the Vietnamese are making software, who will be making clothes? We can’t shuffle the sweatshops on forever. The next stage is likely to be towards Africa, and clothes are already made in Madagascar and Mauritius, among others. When Madagascar develops and wants to move beyond simple manufacturing, who will make our clothes then?

Demand doesn’t remain static either. We still want cheap clothes in the UK and the US, but so do Japan, and now China, and soon Malaysia and Thailand will want their own Primark equivalents. Every year we need to produce more cheap consumer goods, and that means more sweatshops must be opened to supply the newly wealthy.

Where does it stop? We must surely reach a point when there’s no one left who wants to work in sweatshop, or in a call centre. Or will the last people to arrive on the scene just be stuck with the worst jobs forever?

The answer is of course to take working conditions more seriously. We cannot turn a blind eye to sweatshops, just because they will move on somewhere else soon enough. Nobody should have to work in the conditions we had in industrial revolution era England – we wouldn’t tolerate it here, and we shouldn’t tolerate it in Bangladesh. It is quite possible to make clothes, or answer phones, in healthy environments, with decent hours and pay. It’s just that they have to be a little more expensive to factor in those kinds of benefits. Once again, are we prepared to have less, and pay more, for a fairer deal for others? Or will we keep ignoring the issue and shuffling it around until we’ve exploited and worn out every unindustrialised country in the world?

*NIE = newly industrialising economies
ASEAN 4 = Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines

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