Wednesday, June 15, 2005


For Scouts, it has been as much a part of their movement as jamborees, woggles and the three-fingered salute. Now, after a century, the Scout Association has ditched its traditional pledge of loyalty "to God and to the Queen" in favour of a series of multicultural options. Muslim Scouts can opt to swear to Allah, while atheists can drop God altogether and budding republicans can pledge themselves to the state rather than the monarch.

The pledge is taken by all Scouts on joining the movement, which was established in 1907. The new variations are intended to reflect the growing diversity of Britain. They represent a rejection of the "muscular Christianity" and love of monarchy espoused by Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting. The changes have horrified some prominent former Scouts. Stephen Pound, the Labour MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary Scout group, called the changes "profoundly retrograde, uncalled for and potentially extremely divisive".

The current pledge, based on that written by Baden-Powell, states: "On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people and to keep the Scout law." Under new guidelines issued to Scout leaders, Muslim Scouts - as well as Beavers and Cubs, the groups to which younger boys belong - can pledge their duty to Allah and Hindu Scouts to their Dharma. Atheists can promise to live life in "good moral standing". In addition, children who are not British but live here can promise to do their duty to "the country in which I am now living" instead of promising allegiance to the Queen. For republican recruits, there is the option of pledging "duty to the state and the laws of the state". Members whose beliefs are not covered by any of the published alternatives can use other forms of wording agreed between their parents and the leader of their Scout group.

"Scouting is available to all faiths and, therefore, must take account of the different religious obligations of its members," the new guidelines state. "To meet these circumstances, there are different forms of the Beaver Scout, Cub Scout and Scout promise that can be made, allowing for the individual's obligations while upholding the essential spirit of the promise. "The phrase `to love God' and `duty to God' implies belief in a supreme being and the acceptance of divine guidance and therefore the word `God' can be replaced by `Allah', `my Dharma' or others as appropriate to suit the faith or religion of the individual concerned." It is hoped the shift in policy will help to rid the association of its reputation for being mainly white, middle-class and Christian. The Girl Guides changed their pledge from "God" to "my God" more than a decade ago.

Baden-Powell was inspired to found the Scouts after being impressed with the initiative shown by boys during the siege of the South African town of Mafeking in 1899-1900 during the Boer war. His first experimental camp was held on Brownsea Island off Poole in Dorset in 1907. "There is a vast reserve of loyal patriotism and Christian spirit lying dormant in our nation today," he wrote in his handbook, Scouting for Boys, published in 1908.

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Universities across the country are making an effort to ensure that products with their name on them are not made in sweatshops. U.S. unions, such as UNITE, the garment workers' union, lobby to impose working standards for third world countries. Unfortunately these efforts actually hurt poor workers in third world countries more than help them. A typical incident in the campaign against sweatshops occurred at a recent "Week of Sweat" campaign at Washburn University. Liana Foxvog, leader of SweatFree Communities, a national organization opposed to third-world sweatshops, congratulated the university because, she said, "there are student groups and university faculty interested that the clothing Washburn University buys isn't made in sweat shops." But abstaining from buying their products is a policy that harms workers.

Economists across the political spectrum, from Paul Krugman on the left to Walter Williams on the right, have defended sweatshops. The economic reasoning is straightforward. People choose what is in their perceived best interests. If workers voluntarily choose to work in a sweatshop, without being physically coerced, it must be because it is their best option compared to their other even worse alternatives. Admittedly, sweatshops have abhorrently low wages and poor working conditions by western standards. However, economists point out that alternatives to working in a sweatshop are often much worse; oftentimes scavenging through trash, prostitution, crime, or even starvation are the other choices workers face.

Our recent research, "Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?" forthcoming in the Journal of Labor Research, was the first economic study to systematically examine sweatshop wages compared to the living standards in the countries where they existed. We examined the apparel industry in countries often accused of having sweatshops and then we looked at 43 specific accusations of sweatshop wages in 11 countries throughout Asia and Latin America.

Our findings may seem surprising. Not only were sweatshops superior to the dire alternatives economists usually mentioned but they often provided a better than average standard of living in these countries for their workers. The apparel industry, which is most often accused of unsafe working conditions and poor wages, actually pays relatively well compared to the poverty in the countries where they locate. While more than half of the population in most of the countries we studied lived on less than $2 per day, in 90 percent of the countries working a ten hour day in the apparel industry would lift a worker above, and often far above, that standard. For example, in Honduras, the site of the famous Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal, the average apparel worker earns, $13.10 per day, yet 44% of the country's population lives on less than $2 per day.

In specific cases where companies have been accused of paying sweatshop wages we still find the jobs pay well compared to alternatives. In nine of the eleven countries, the reported sweatshop wages equal or exceed average incomes in the country where they are located, in some cases by a large margin. In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage paid in a firm accused of being a sweatshop is more than double the average income in that country's economy.

Our findings should not be interpreted to mean that the jobs sweatshop workers have in the third world are ideal by U.S. standards. The point is, they are located in developing countries where these jobs are providing a higher wage than other work. Anti-sweatshop activists who argue to abstain from buying products made in sweatshops are harming workers by taking away some of the better jobs in their economy.

Buying products made in sweatshops would do more to help third world workers than college protests. Wages are determined by a worker's productivity and next best alternative employment. By purchasing more products made in sweatshops we create more demand for them and increase the number of factories in these poor economies. That gives the workers more employers to choose from, raises productivity and wages and eventually improves working conditions. This is the same process of economic development the U.S. went through and it is ultimately how third world workers will raise their standard of living and quality of life.


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