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“So-called sweatshops…most definitely to be welcomed and encouraged.”

Now there’s a contentious line to take. European and US labour activists may be up in arms about the message of a new book: “The Case for Business in Developing Countries” by Ann Bernstein.

I haven’t read it yet, but here’s a link to a Financial Time review of her new tome, where the FT says she makes the case for appreciating overseas investment in developing countries:

“So-called sweatshops,” she writes, “are most definitely to be welcomed and encouraged.” They are an entry point into the modern economy for unskilled people for whom the alternative to a low-paid job is no job. “I cannot think of many countries that have taken off economically which did not start their industrial revolutions with anything but awful (by modern standards) conditions in its mines and factories or on its farms.”

Bernstein’s argument, according to the FT is that companies sourcing from countries with lower standards of health, safety and pay, have “let the terms of the debate be set by non-governmental organisations and western activists who have made profit-seeking synonymous with immorality, bullying business into acting guilty and seeking penitence.”

“This is the origin of a corporate social responsibility movement that Bernstein loathes” claims the FT review.

Sounds like an interesting argument. It’s not a new one, of course, as this article, and many before it, demonstrate.

The NGO influence question is one I always set my Master’s students at Birkbeck for one of their essays. There’s no doubt NGO concerns, legitimate or otherwise, have helped shape the agenda, probably more than than any other factor. That’s either been by direct campaigning (sweatshops) or indirect (climate change awareness).

But largely, in my view, that’s been a good thing. It’s helped companies evaluate risk much more holistically, and it’s helped drive up standards in those very factories that Bernstein so supports. Better conditions does not have to mean less jobs, after all.

For probably the best speech on the role of business in ‘doing good’, it’s hard to top this speech by Richard Lambert, former FT editor and head of the CBI, given a year ago at the Royal Society of Arts in London.

Meanwhile, the book has got to be worth reading. I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather read a book by a critic of corporate responsibility than an advocate.

There’s been far too many unworthy tomes by the latter and not enough useful treatise by the former to date.

David Henderson, Clive Crook, Naomi Klein, Robert Reich, Aneel Karnani and the other critics have all failed to make the case against CR.

David Vogel has come closest to a nuanced account of when it might not make sense. But set Vogel’s argument against the bigger picture set out by Richard Lambert and there is only one clear winner.

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