In this video, my friend Matt Zwolinski argues that “even if sweatshop workers are treated unfairly, there are three points to be made in defense of sweatshops.” The video sets out the argument, but I’ve paraphrased them in case you don’t have the full five minutes to watch:
- Workers are better off in a sweatshop than in another job, as wages are better in sweatshops relative to other jobs in their economy;
- Prohibiting sweatshop labor doesn’t eliminate poverty or provide more options, but simply limits people’s choices further;
- It’s better to do something about global poverty than to do nothing; sweatshops give people jobs and contribute to developing countries’ economies.
Zwolinski and I went several rounds on sweatshops on our blogs back in November and, clearly, neither one of us changed the other’s mind.
Here’s the skeleton of my argument:
1. Just because some bad thing isn’t as bad as other bad things doesn’t mean that the original thing isn’t bad and in need of being fixed;
Here’s how I concluded one of my posts back in November:
I can’t get away from the feeling that making this argument also lets us off the hook far too easily. It’s certainly true that someone who consumes very, very little is better off with a little bit more. But I don’t think that’s sufficient. Certainly, it’s better that the job exists and that someone is elevated by it from absolutely crushing poverty to simple poverty.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road and I separate myself from someone who thinks that the market is the only necessary arbiter of whether or not something is allowable or legitimate. For me, there’s no reason that a corporation must (let alone ought to) take advantage of people in such a state. Corporations and their shareholders benefit from doing so and the market allows it … but this is precisely why I’m always going to find myself favoring some sort of regulation rather than simply accepting whatever happens as a result of a free market.
2. That people can choose from a very narrow range of bad options doesn’t mean that the choice of a sweatshop job is one we ought to be celebrating.
To flesh this out a bit, here’s what I wrote about this sort of choice in a previous post
But what sort of choice are we talking about here? Are these really choices in the sense that we think of them? Or are we looking at the choice between a job with terrible working conditions that allows one to feed one’s family and no job at all (which might lead to indentured servitude, sexual slavery, or even death)? This isn’t really a choice, as far as I’m concerned; it amounts to exploitation, which both liberals and bleeding heart libertarians oppose.
3. Doing something to alleviate global poverty doesn’t necessitate getting into bed with corporations that want to profit by exploiting workers in developing countries; what’s more, the only alternative to embracing sweatshops doesn’t have to be doing nothing at all.
As I wrote back in November:
[T]here is a systemic problem here and it calls for a systemic solution. We can’t simply pay our own way out of the exploitation issue. If we regard exploitation as a moral wrong, then we ought to actually prevent others from exploiting people. And when the problem is fairly complex — as it is here with our potentially competing desires not to exploit and not to cost people jobs they desperately need — then we need some regulation that will yield a living wage for workers. This might mean we have to pay more for products, which will require us to adjust the way we think about fair prices. But it’s probably about time we did this, given what we know about how these inexpensive products are making their way to us.
Zwolinski will argue — as he does in this video — that the result of my do-goodery will mean fewer jobs and fewer options, which will mean worse lives for the people I think I’m helping. This is necessarily the case, he thinks, because a corporation can simply shutter its factory in one country when regulations make it less profitable and open up a new one in another country where these regulations don’t exist.
And that’s why we need to be thinking about instituting regulations in the corporations’ home countries (generally in Europe and North America) rather than insisting that regulations be implemented by the governments of developing countries (who all want to attract these corporations, not alienate them). In other words, corporations should be held to strict standards in their operations abroad, just as they are at home. When this happens, it won’t actually matter what developing countries can offer in terms of a workforce ripe for exploitation … because these corporations will be unable to institute exploitative factory conditions in any country.
Do we really think the result will be an end to companies doing business abroad? I suppose it depends on the regulations. If corporations are forced to pay workers in Indonesia exactly the same amount they pay workers in Indiana, then sure. But who exactly is agitating for that kind of regulation? I’m not. Instead, corporations should be required to pay a living wage (which would surely vary by country) and ensure workplace conditions that respect the basic human dignity of their workers (which doesn’t vary).
Is this an oversimplified solution to a very complex problem? Sure. But, then, so is Zwolinski’s explanation for why sweatshops aren’t really such a problem at all.
Indeed, there’s a great deal more to be said … especially about the long-term impact of colonialism on the people of the developing world and the ways in which sweatshops don’t really address the problems of autocracy and poverty in these countries (even if they provide some people with a choice and a better paycheck). In the end, thinking critically about what the Global North owes to the Global South will necessarily involve careful consideration of these issues and would probably lead to a much more serious reckoning for free market advocates who also care about justice. But, for now, regulations that insist on respecting people’s basic human dignity is a decent first step.