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On the dangers of believing the worst

Thanks to Dave Hoffman and the Co-op gang for having me back here. I’m planning to blog about global labor issues, starting with some thoughts on the recent news that Nicholas Kristof’s source for some of his anti-trafficking columns – the high-profile Cambodian activist Somaly Mam – “fabricated at least some parts of her own story and the dramatic, heartrending stories of girls she said were sold into sex slavery.”

Now, I can’t deny a bit of shadenfreude here—not because I harbor any malice for Mam or her organization, but rather because of Kristof’s know-nothing column of February insisting that academics should be more engaged in policy debates. The thing is, certain law professors have long argued that criminalization-based global regulatory approaches to sex trafficking can be downright counterproductive, and Mam’s organization seems to have been exemplified some of those trends. In particular, it seems to have thrived by casting trafficking as a wrong perpetrated by particular bad actors rather than a complex social phenomenon rooted in extreme economic and gender inequality. I’m oversimplifying, of course–sex trafficking is obviously a terrible practice, and those who perpetrate it are certainly bad actors. Nevertheless, this approach helped lead, some have argued, to “abusive crackdowns on the people [Mam] claimed to save,” rather than more nuanced efforts to prevent trafficking and assist its victims in the first place. Kristof might have called a law professor before embracing Mam’s work so uncritically.

This affair echoes a broader disturbing trend in public debate around global labor issues, particularly for unskilled production workers and the vast majority of trafficked workers who are in the domestic, agriculture, and garment sectors: namely, many activists’ and consumers’ uncritical belief of terrible stories of labor or other exploitation in the Global South.

Mam’s story is just the most recent one example. Another is Mike Daisy’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Daisey’s stories of Apple/FoxConn workers with permanent paralysis due to the use of toxic chemicals; of armed guards outside FoxConn plants; and of meeting with numerous child workers led in part to Apple’s reform of its supply chain practices. That is all to the good. But NPR’s China correspondent quickly called out Daisey for his misunderstanding of Chinese society and even geography. As became clear, Daisey had embellished some aspects of his narrative, and had made others up from whole cloth.

Some other details about FoxConn’s factories that made headlines in the U.S. didn’t hold up to critical scrutiny either, in particular the spate of suicides in 2012. While shocking, the suicide rate at such plants actually wasn’t any higher than the general suicide rate in either China or the U.S. In fact, FoxConn final assembly workers’ laboring conditions may be better than most others’ in China. Yet many in the U.S. and Europe easily believed the worst: that those workers, uniquely, were driven to suicide by overwork.

Why are so many predisposed to believe the worst about Global South workers? And what are the consequences of that pattern of...

Via Concurring Opinions

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