Sweatshops–What is evil and possibly good about them?by Don Lacey on Jul. 05, 2012, under Critical Thinking, Economics, Ethics, History, Libertarianism, Logic, Question of the Day!, Reason, Responsible Government, That's Life!
Jim Wilson looks into sweatshops:
“My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops but that there are too few.”
- Jeffrey Sachs Columbia University Economist United Nations Advisor and Earth Institute Founder
Sweatshops tend to be the universal label for places with the worst possible working conditions. The term conjures up images of third world people working long hours under unsafe conditions. They have few if any bathroom breaks are exposed to hazardous material and frequent abuse from bosses and over-seers. This is not to mention pay so low as to be comparable with slavery and the use of child labor. It is undeniable that such workshops are the source of many of the consumer products that make life for us first worlders as rich as it is and it is these conditions that keep the many of the prices we pay low.
We don’t like to think about that. The mere thought of our favorite fleece or running shoes being assembled by the hands of poorly treated child workers is unsettling. Many Americans also feel too busy with our own lives to spend much time worrying much about some kid in Dogcrapistan. The residual colonial attitude is that we are improving the lives of foreign savages by giving them the opportunity to assemble Air Jordans.
Many of my libertarian and conservative friends will happily (in some cases gleefully) point out that if these people could find a better means of supporting themselves they would not be sweatshop laborers. The more vulgar of these sorts go as far as to argue that we should applaud corporations that use sweatshops for improving the lives of the poor. I cannot help but note these arguments always come from comfy-living westerners or tenured economics professors who are quite safe from the market forces they wish to subject everyone else to.
On some level, they are correct I’m sure it is true that sweatshop labor is the best option available for many people. I recognize that correcting the underlying circumstances that produce them would be disastrous. I don’t want to boycott the world’s poorest workers out of their jobs. But, I’m also not going to praise or celebrate the companies that exploit them. This is especially true when the products in question are hundred dollar basketball shoes or brand name hand bags that sell for a small fortune but only cost a few bucks to make. If rich Americans and Europeans are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for something the kids making it should be getting most of this money rather than the fat cats at the top of the corporate hierarchy far removed from the actual production process. I also will not applaud or say anything positive about a company whose overseers actively dehumanize members of their work force.
The same goes for companies that are in league with governments that actively suppress the working class. I’m talking about corporations that participate in military coups and have used the military to crush strikes or in any way used the state or paramilitaries to limit their laborers options. I cannot help but be sympathetic with the school of thought that wants to blame all the poverty that makes sweatshops possible on state intervention and I think a good case can be made. My understanding is many colonial governments used taxation to force people out of subsistence agriculture and used violence to create huge disparities in access to land and resources. This type of colonial inequality still exists in places where sweatshops are common and state action is at least in part if not fully responsible.
On the other hand, maybe all developing countries really do need to go through a sweatshop phase. The United States and Western Europe certainly did. If so then this is an unfortunate reality of capitalism. After all, imagine how many brilliant people will never reach their full potential because they never had any choice but work some tedious sweatshop job. Perhaps there are countless would-be Einsteins and Mozarts laboring in the world’s factories and plantations who will have the chance to realize their full potential.
With modern technology we produce enough food to feed the world’s population so why should anyone work on starvation wages? I do not have any easy answers to the questions raised here but working for workers empowerment is an important step. I have recently read about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers which has successfully made agreements for better wages and working conditions with several major food retailers improving the lives of some 30000 farm workers. They have done this without government assistance or recognition which flies in the face of the stereotype that labor unions require state intervention or force to see victory.
Americans should spend more time pondering where their consumer goods come from and how to make the world a better place for the people who make them.