In the 1990s, Americans learned more about the appalling conditions at the factories where our sneakers and T-shirts were made, and opposition to sweatshops surged. But some economists pushed back. For them, the wages and conditions in sweatshops might be appalling, but they are an improvement on people’s less visible rural poverty.
As the economist Joan Robinson said, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”
Textbook economics offers two reasons factory jobs can be “an escalator out of poverty.” First, a booming industrial sector should raise wages over time. Second, boom or not, factory jobs might be better than the alternatives: Unlike agriculture or informal market selling, these factories pay a steady wage, and if workers gained skills valued by the market, they might earn higher wages. Factories may also have incentives to pay more than agricultural or informal market work to persuade workers to stay and be productive.
Expecting to prove the experts right, we went to Ethiopia and — working with the Innovations for Poverty Action and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute — performed the first randomized trial of industrial employment on workers. Little did we anticipate that everything we believed would turn out to be wrong.