A program intended to lift Cambodian workers out of poverty has plunged Harvard, one of the wealthiest US universities, into controversy over alleged sweat-shop exploitation and hypocrisy.
It all started when editors at the Harvard Crimson, the university’s daily newspaper, wanted to create a database of all the articles published in the Crimson’s 128-year history.
Harvard is one of the best-endowed universities in the world, and the Crimson has vigorously supported a $10.25-per-hour minimum wage for Harvard employees.
With a limited budget, however, newspaper editors say they could not afford to create the database using Harvard employees.
“It would be too expensive for huge newspapers like the [Washington] Post or the [New York] Times, let alone a small student newspaper like ours,” said Matthew MacInnis, the Crimson’s president.
He chose instead to hire Digital Divide Data Entry of Phnom Penh, a philanthropic organization that is providing English-language and computer training to Cambodians for data-entry jobs. Digital Divide is sharing the Harvard contract with a similar company based in India. The Harvard contract is Digital Divide’s first.
Digital Divide’s founders say they want to bridge the information gap, or “digital divide,” that increasingly separates well-paid Western workers from their counterparts in the developing world.
“Cambodia should become a full partner in the technology revolution,” Jeremy Hockenstein, one of the founders, said recently.
Digital Divide pays its 20 workers $50 per month for working six hours six days a week. Health care benefits, Internet access and English training are provided for free. The company hopes to raise salaries to $65 per month and hire more people in the coming months if contracts continue to roll in, Hockenstein said.
But when news media in the US found out that well-heeled Harvard was paying 40 cents per hour to Cambodians rather than $10.25 per hour to US citizens, the barrage of criticism began.
News outlets ranging from The Associated Press news service to the Boston Globe quoted critics calling Harvard hypocritical and exploitative for paying so little.
The most recent attack came in a column by Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly, who accused MacInnis of elitism and insensitivity.
MacInnis responded with a letter to the Washington Post’s editor on Saturday, saying the Crimson was being unfairly attacked.
“The impulse reaction to 40 cents is to envision a sweatshop-style working environment with Cambodians acting as the Crimson’s slaves,” he wrote. “In fact, the nonprofit organization we have hired to run the program—Digital Divide—has as its main goal to improve the living conditions of these Cambodian citizens.”
According to the World Bank, the poverty line in Cambodia is a wage of about $0.50 per person per day. Digital Divide pays $2.40 per day, more than four times the poverty level, as well as providing health care and training, MacInnis wrote.
The issue is reminiscent of a public relations disaster that evolved last year, when a British Broadcasting Corp documentary crew accused June Textile Co Ltd of employing child labor. The resulting outcry prompted sportswear giants Gap and Nike to cancel contracts in Cambodia, costing some factory workers their jobs.
Labor advocates in Cambodia say that garment factories may occasionally employ underage workers who lie about their age, but that many adults compete for factory jobs and there is no need for manufacturers to hire children.
© 2001 – 2013, All rights reserved.