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Cambodian data entry outfit provokes ‘sweatshop’ slur

Global philanthropy or exploitation?

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If you set up an office in Phnom Penh and fill it with Cambodians doing data-entry chores for US organisations, is this a philanthropic application of globalisation or nothing more than the cynical exploitation of cheap sweatshop labour?

That's the question raised by the BBC which reports on the success of Digital Data Divide (DDD), a non-profit organisation now employing more than 100 Cambodians in tasks as diverse as knocking out Harvard University's Crimson newspaper to archiving a 19th century Boston residents' directory.

DDD is the brainchild of Canadian Jeremy Hockenstein who set up the organisation after a trip in 2000 to Cambodia. Hockenstein raised $50,000 dollars to target the most disadvantaged of Cambodia's citizens - including victims of the country's genocidal civil war - and within a mere six months DDD was covering its operating expenses.

Later grants from the British Government, World Bank and USAID have enabled DDD to expand to its current size. Employees get around $65 a month - considered a very good whack in Cambodia - and their hard work has helped DDD earn more than $275,000 in foreign contracts.

So, what's the problem? Well, The Boston Globe has accused Harvard's Crimson of "hypocrisy for hiring low-cost Asian typists". DDD's replies that the job would certainly have gone to Indian or Phillipino outfits had it not secured the work.

Hockenstein is adamant that "globalisation can benefit some of the world's poorest citizens". He also hopes that "ours is a model of how you can do it responsibly, and if you do it responsibly you can actually get more work".

Most cost benefit analyses show that Western consumers are the prime beneficiaries of outsourcing overseas. But the politics are messy.

While many agree that such globalisation helps the poorest nations gain a footing on the capitalist ladder, aggrieved Westerners who have lost their jobs to Indian call centres and Russian programmers argue that charity begins at home. Many more, especially in the US, are worried about losing their jobs to overseas. The protectionist drums are beating. ®
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