Third World Think Tank

Posted by – November 14, 2009

This is a story about a shirt.

When I was 19, I served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to Nicaragua. This is a country with few natural resources, a literacy rate of 68%, a government steeped in nigh inescapable corruption, and an economy that has yet to recover from the regime of the Sandinistas (to say nothing of the earthquake that leveled the capital 30-odd years ago). Poverty doesn’t begin to describe it—if one who lives as well as I still lives beneath the poverty threshold, then a new word must be found to describe how the poorest live in Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, I met a woman who studied industrial engineering in Russia. There was no work for her; she sold tomatoes in the market. I’ve heard that most college graduates do not work in their field of study, but, really, tomatoes?

By complete random chance, the shirts that I bought (in Provo, UT) for my mission were made in Nicaragua. By a chance somewhat less random, I spent six months of that mission in Tipitapa, where those shirts were made. I taught a woman who worked in the factory that made the shirts; when I told her they were made in Nicaragua, she peered at them for a moment, nodded her head, and said that she remembered those shirts.

Hours in the factory are long; 12- to 16-hour days are the norm. A factory worker cannot choose her shift; rather, her hours are dictated to her. If the factory has a deadline to meet, well, it works overtime, whatever the wishes of its workers. Fortunately, the pay is good; it starts at $80/month, with the most skilled and dedicated making $150/month or more.

Some may read a degree of sarcasm in that last sentence; I assure you, I mean it precisely as written. If you can manage to earn $80/month in Nicaragua, you are above the average GDP per capita. At $80/month, you can even afford certain luxuries, like sending your kids to school.

Nicaragua is a country in which one may subsist with very little. Electricity is nice, but hardly needed; the temperature never drops below 80 ºF in most of the country, and nearly everyone cooks over wood fires. If you can’t pay for running water, you can dig a well (though only the truly destitute take this route). Food is cheaper—a small family can subsist on less than a dollar a day. And if you don’t own the land on which you reside, well, nobody cares enough to kick you off.

You think they have poor factory workers in China? At least one of those clothes factories was owned by a man from China.

I don’t feel guilty (well, not very guilty, anyway) that most of what I own was made in a third world country. I can honestly say, from what I witnessed with my own eyes, that those who work at that particular lousy, exploitative sweatshop are the fortunate ones. Because businesses in the developed world realized that a third-world living wage amounts to a comparative pittance, and because the world is flat, literally thousands of Nicaraguans have secure jobs at a competitive wage.

That said, my hope is that our first world free ride will not last forever. My hope is that circumstances in Nicaragua will one day improve to the point where no one would stoop to work for a mere $80/month. Surely the poverty of the developing world cannot last forever; in a flat world, even the Nicas can participate in the same global economic machine that turned America into a nation where poverty is a joke.

It may mean paying more for my shirts, but it would also mean less chance of my job going to India, or China, or Russia. And, you know, it would be pretty great for the people in third world countries, too.

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