Nicholas Kristof’s Sweatshop Boner

by Robin D on July 14, 2014 · 12 comments

in Labor Law, Trafficking

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

The Cambodian garment industry’s factories often serve as the canonical example of sweatshops. Women toil away in them for long hours with low pay and awful, unsafe working conditions. There are regular mass faintings due to poor ventilation, chemicals such as insecticides and shoe glue, long hours, and lack of access to health care.

There are about 650,000 Cambodian garment workers, and 90% of them are women. The current Cambodian minimum wage is US$80 per month, though the lower end of a living wage in Cambodia is twice that, at US$160. Many Cambodian garment workers have organized themselves and are working to institute change through collective bargaining and by pressuring companies looking to improve their brands’ image. Local unions have even secured support from a number of international corporations, and these corporations and unions (as part of IndustriALL Global Union) were able to meet peaceably with government officials on May 26th. At issue were a new trade union law, mechanisms for setting wages, a demand for a US$160 per month minimum wage, and the fates of 23 garment workers who were arrested in January for protesting working conditions and pay. Unfortunately, a strike that was planned for the previous month failed. Still, protests continued.

The 23 workers were arrested as part of a violent government crackdown on January 3rd that left at least four dead and 80 wounded. There were similar protests and crackdowns the previous November, when police shot and killed one protester and wounded nine. There was another protest the previous September over mass dismissals of workers on strike and intimidation measures including the presence of military police during inspections.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, however, practically idolizes Cambodian sweatshops. Kristof has recently come under fire for disseminating false stories about sex trafficking that were fed to him by the Somaly Mam Foundation and Mam’s “rehabilitation center” AFESIP in his columns, in the forward to her memoir, and in his 2012 “documentary” Half the Sky. Information about Mam’s fraud, however, had been published in the Cambodia Daily since 2010, and it is highly unlikely that Kristof was unaware of this fact. Her fraud and its horrific consequences for local sex workers were hardly a secret among sex worker rights activists in the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

Nicholas Kristof is a serious demagogue of the white savior variety when it comes to sex work and sexuality. He live-tweeted brothel raids with Somaly Mam, and named a 9-year-old Congolese rape victim.

Meanwhile, Cambodian sex worker detention centers sometimes function as garment factories and are home to human rights abuses documented extensively by Human Rights Watch. Srey Mao is a Cambodian sex worker who was confined with friends in a “rehabilitation center” run by Somaly Mam’s organization AFESIP after raids such as the one live-tweeted by Kristof, and she and her friends have come forward to say that they were held against their will in the center and instructed to lie to foreign visitors and say that they were victims of trafficking being rescued. The person who instructed them to lie was Somaly Mam.

Warning: the following video contains graphic depictions of gang rape and false imprisonment:

So why would Nicholas Kristof support sweatshops? Where is the great crusader when it comes to the labor and human rights abuses in the Cambodian garment industry?

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

Colonialism drives NGO fraud in all sorts of ways and in much of the world, that’s hardly a secret either. The New York Times, for its own part, has already proven that it will gladly cover up mass surveillance of citizens on the part of the U.S. government until after the conclusion of a Presidential election. Compared to that, NGO fraud by Western-based NGOs is small change to U.S. media institutions.

And NGO fraud probably hardly matters to an opinion columnist who barely commented the last time a founder he supported was caught in a lie and who does little else but trade in the most lurid and violent tales possible. Just so long as they support his worldview: Opposing sex work in all its forms while remaining completely blind to the massive suffering of garment sector workers.

Kristof has some interesting corporate funders for his Half the Sky Foundation. It’s still broadcast proudly that the organization is funded by the Nike Foundation. Nike’s garment sector interests and past and present labor practices are fairly well known. Other funders include IKEA, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, and Intel. The President of Digital for Time, Inc.’s Style and Entertainment Group is there too, which is interesting in light of the fact that Somaly Mam was named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2008 and a member of the Time 100 in 2009.

Kristof’s final words in his sweatshop column bring up the conditions faced by another young girl:

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.
“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.” [Source]

What’s better still, for a 13-year-old, is allowing her parents, whether they are sex workers or not, to provide for her and give her an education rather than turning her loose to scavenge, beg, and otherwise be forced to earn money while they are detained in Orwellian “rehabilitation centers” for an act that was not even a crime until 2008, not long after Somaly Mam began her ascendancy among the Hollywood elite. The criminalization of prostitution in Cambodia was a successful bid by the Cambodian government to be removed from the third tier of the U.S. State Department trafficking watchlist. It probably didn’t matter to Cambodian or U.S. decision makers that this legislation resulted in extensive human rights abuses. To Kristof, it was progress.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Lily July 14, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Thank you for the truth tellers like Robin Dunn and thanks TAS for publishing this brilliance

Reply

Red July 15, 2014 at 1:00 am

This is fantastic thank you!

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Tracy Vanity July 16, 2014 at 5:07 am

Excellent article. Thank you for exposing Kristoff for the opportunistic patronizing fraud that he is.

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MistressMatisse July 16, 2014 at 7:53 pm

This is a great article, thank you for doing it, and thanks to T&S for running it.

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Janine August 2, 2014 at 3:15 am

Is he against all sex work? Anyone got any links to quotes about this?

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Robin D August 2, 2014 at 8:47 pm

He just has a really twisted, wrong view of his opposition as being sex workers who are so privileged (coming from him, that’s quite something to say, no?) that this talk of “rights” is silliness, because who cares about whatever those sex workers are harping on if they don’t play into Kristof’s savior-image and ego? I mean, his conception of “rescue” is raiding brothels and imprisoning women and opening them up to horrible institutional abuses – the man’s not a very deep thinker, and his conception of those he’d deign to rescue is that they must be less so – definitely not capable of talking back.

In response to comments on a 2009 column of his on Long Pross – the girl under Somaly Mam’s care who was made to lie about the removal of a tumor from her eye, and to say that a brothel owner gouged it out, he says: “The bottom line is that, sure, some prostitutes work voluntarily. My concern isn’t what consenting adults do. But the fact that there are some women who choose to sell sex doesn’t mitigate the horror of 14-year-old girls kidnapped and locked up in brothels until they get AIDS. Millions of girls today are kidnapped and enslaved, particularly in countries like India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Malaysia.” He then goes on to talk up the TIP office, because when it comes to the abuses that have been enacted by that office and by foreign governments at its behest, Nicholas Kristof has been a participant. His view of “taking action” is entirely backwards. http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/03/your-comments-on-my-sunday-column/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

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Robin D August 2, 2014 at 8:53 pm

A pretty good comment on that article:

“Aid Worker in Phnom Penh January 12, 2009 · 2:03 am

I appreciate Mr. Kristof’s efforts to raise awareness of this terrible human rights situation and of the genuine concern many posters have expressed on this comments page. However, I think some should be reminded that a thousand word column cannot possibly present the whole story.

There is a big gap between public perceptions of “action” and actual anti-trafficking efforts. This is not a black and white situation unfortunately (though I would not claim that Mr. Kristof has necessarily presented it this way, he has missed some key points). For example, Kristof writes here that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act has “led to the possibility of sanctions against countries that tolerate trafficking.” However, we all know that the U.S. Government acts in its own interest, and sometimes that means putting aside good intentions for the sake of allies. Israel has a terrible trafficking record that has quite obviously been down-played by the State Department in its reports. EU countries and other western allies also have trafficking problems, particularly the former Soviet bloc countries.

In Cambodia, Mr. Kristof rightly praises the Cambodian government for passing anti-trafficking legislation. This was an historic step in relative terms. But the implementation of this legislation has not been entirely successful. The police have used it as an excuse to crack down on sex workers and pimps, but often it is the brothel owners that get away with a simple bribe while the sex workers are rounded up and sent to jail. There have been numerous reports of abuses, including rape, of these legally and socially excluded women at the hands of the police. Many sex workers have now gone underground and as a consequence health NGOs here in Cambodia have lost track of sex workers they have been monitoring for years, leaving these women more vulnerable to HIV. I would argue that the death of (former Cambodian Chief of Police) Hok Lundy, considered one of the more dangerous men in SE Asia, in late 2008 did more to contribute to anti-trafficking efforts in Cambodia than any piece of legislation any could in this corrupt country. In short, my point is that there are many sides to this issue and for obvious reasons we cannot forget to explore the possible consequences of seemingly benevolent action.”

Also,

“Habilis January 12, 2009 · 9:37 am

Also, Aid Worker, now that the Phnom Penh police have cracked down, the sex workers have stopped carrying condoms because the possession of such would implicate them in a crime.

Mr. Kristof, your fascination with this topic of teenage sex is curious, but the appeal to America’s prurient interest will sell newspapers, of course.

Surely more of Cambodia’s youth are at more serious risk from the unexploded ordinance and land mines that your government left all over the countryside. Surely a lot of Cambodian pathology can resulted after your military cut and ran. (Leaving millions to die at the hands of the Maoist Khmer Rouge and subsequent Communist Vietnamese invaders.)

I also think you are being somewhat manipulated by certain people who have vested interests in gaining the sympathies and thus the funding of programs to stop this trade. Sure, there is prostitution in Cambodia, but not NEARLY as much as in your city of New York! You can also believe what you want, but a “call girl” that comes to a penthouse in NYC likely has her Russian “driver” waiting outside and will be “protected” from losing her way home.

Perhaps you should also investigate the (foreign-owned)garment factories in Cambodia that also exploit the Khmer women. I am sure you will find that many of the garment workers spend their evenings as sex workers to make ends meet.

Most of Cambodia is a rather polite and traditional society, with values and morals that materialistic Americans could never aspire to. You make the country look horrible, but Cambodia is a beautiful place full of hope. Certainly, development of a nation often involves some unsavory things, even America had slavery, child labor, genocide of the indigenous people, etc., etc.

Please stop exploiting Cambodia for your newspaper. Maybe you should write more about the women trafficked into NYC. Here is a hint, look in the NYC phone book under “Escorts” and tell us what you find. Or, would it be better if a Cambodian reporter investigated the massive prostitution trade in NYC and published it in a Cambodian paper.”

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Robin D August 2, 2014 at 9:51 pm

“Holly January 9, 2009 · 2:25 pm

Mr. Kristoff:
If you are interested in writing about the sex industry in Cambodia, I urge you to also write about how sex workers have been arrested and subsequently gang raped, robbed, and beaten by police and guards in a Cambodian detention center under U.S. imposed anti-prostitution legislation. At least three sex workers have died in police custody due to being denied needed medical care. Ironically, fighting human trafficking was the rational given for this anti-prostitution legislation that has resulted in major human rights abuses. I ask: Since when does gang raping sex workers stop human trafficking? It is essential to look for progressive and effective solutions to stopping human trafficking, rather than using human trafficking as a tool to promote oppressive anti-prostitutuion laws that harm sex workers.”

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