State Auditor Tim Keller calls the company he ran in Cambodia a social enterprise and describes his work there as “the most meaningful and impactful experience I’ve ever had.”
City Councilor Dan Lewis – Keller’s opponent in the Nov. 14 mayoral runoff – alleged in a debate last month that Keller created “sweatshop jobs in Cambodia” and that the enterprise “took away union jobs in America.”
So was Digital Divide Data a sweatshop – a place where workers are employed at low wages for long hours and under poor conditions? And did that nonprofit, which Keller ran in Cambodia from 2001 to 2003, take “union jobs” away from America?
DDD’s business model is based on hiring members of economically disadvantaged groups such as land mine victims in Cambodia and other developing countries. They do data entry work, such as typing old newspaper articles and other records so that they are available digitally. The nonprofit encourages its workers to get college degrees, and it provides scholarships for them.
“This is yet another example of my opponent making things up and of these sort of desperate lies that really have no grounding in truth,” Keller said. “And it’s also incredibly ignorant and disrespectful of all of the land mine victims in Cambodia and the country situation as a whole to mischaracterize a project that literally saves lives as anything but that.”
Asked why he accused Keller of creating “sweatshop jobs,” Lewis said there are lots of questions about Keller’s work in Cambodia.
“How much were those people being paid?” Lewis asked. “Were they paid as much as people in America? No one knows about that company or what he did for three years in Cambodia.”
To be sure, Lewis isn’t the first to question whether Digital Divide Data was exploiting workers in the developing world.
DDD’s first client was the Crimson, Harvard’s independent student newspaper. In 2001, the paper was creating a database of its past editions.
When word got out that Cambodian workers would be paid 40 cents an hour to do the work, several activists were outraged, according to a 2001 story in The Boston Globe.
There’s no question that, by U.S. standards, 40 cents an hour is ridiculously low pay. But the $50 a month that they were paid was higher than the $45 minimum wage paid in Cambodia’s garment sector at the time, and four times higher than Cambodia’s poverty-line wage, according to the Globe and the Cambodia Daily.
Typists worked six-hour shifts a day, six days a week, and DDD provided English lessons and paid for their medical expenses. DDD also raised monthly salaries to $65 while Keller was there.
As for the suggestion that union jobs are being shipped to other countries, C. Matthew MacInnis, a Harvard senior and the Crimson’s president at the time, told the Globe in 2001 that the paper couldn’t afford to have the work done in North America.
The union question
Author David Bornstein argued in a column published in The New York Times in 2011 that U.S. workers aren’t hurt by this type of outsourcing because it’s not economically feasible for those jobs to exist in the U.S.
The concept for DDD didn’t come from Keller, but he was DDD’s first president, and he set up its first operation in Cambodia. By the time he left in 2003, the company had 100 employees and was operating in the black.