Sweatshops and Social Justice

by Brian Blum on February 3, 2010

sweatshopI’ve apparently started running a sweatshop. I didn’t mean to. It’s just what the market seems willing to bear.

It began with a small task. I wanted to move the content on my personal blog from one platform to another. Over the last 7 years, I’ve written well over 400 articles for This Normal Life.

I estimated that it would take between 3-5 minutes per post to transfer. That involved copying and pasting, adding categories and tags, and downloading and then re-uploading any images.

I was able to cut some of that time off by exporting from the original site into an XML format, but the process was flaky and many posts were just dropped indiscriminately.

I didn’t relish the idea of spending hours at a mind-numbing task. So I set out to find a “virtual assistant” who could do the job for me. I initially thought about posting an ad on eLance or oDesk but I really preferred to give it to someone local.

I was thinking that it would be a perfect job for a high school student, so I priced it at NIS 20 (about $5.00) an hour. The candidate who won the job was not a teenager, though. She was a mature adult whose hours working in the office of a major Jewish Federation had just been cut.

I felt terrible about employing someone so competent for such a paltry sum. But she’d accepted the offer willingly.

A week later, I put out another ad, this time for voice talent to record a number of dialogues for a language learning project I was hired to produce. I offered 50% more that my first go – NIS 30 ($8)/hour for about 3 hours of work. I was inundated by calls and emails – close to 50 within two days – including semi-professional actors, singers and performers with TV and radio experience. No one was balking at the low pay even though a proper rate for this kind of work would be 3-4 times higher.

The whole issue has given me pause for concern. Is the economy so bad that people are willing to settle for so little? And is it right for me to offer such rates?

And yet, if I outsourced the work to India or Malaysia, I would be a fool to pay Western salaries. And indeed, I recently had a logo designed via the Internet for the ridiculously low price of $30. A highly qualified local designer quoted me $700 for full branding.

The sweatshops where many of our grandparents worked on the Lower East Side of New York could get away with near slave labor prices, but that wasn’t good for the workers, nor would I say for the souls of their employers. A socially just policy should have the boss paying a fair rate, regardless of what the market can bear.

I’ll probably send my artwork requirements overseas again. But when it comes to my virtual assistant, I’m doubling her pay next time. There’s more to business than bragging over a bargain.

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on the Israelity blog.

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