Sweatshops for Better Lives

You have grown up doing menial work all your life. You never saw a way out. Digging through garbage and selling your body were what you went between to survive. You now have your own daughter; she will soon be the age you were when you started prostituting yourself. A clothing factory has just opened in the city. You’ve heard there are jobs for children. Maybe your daughter won’t have to demean herself the way you did if she can get a job with this multinational corporation sewing. The western world calls these factories “sweatshops”; in your eyes they are a chance at a life you and your daughter could be proud of. Canadian consumers should not boycott products that may have been produced under “sweatshop” conditions because taking that work away from those workers is taking away their chance at a better life. Sweatshops are not ideal; they do exploit, but they also create an alternative for people in poverty, and trying to raise the standards in sweatshops isn’t an easy fix.

You or I may have envisioned a sweatshop environment in our minds: a picture of desperation, filth, and hunger. This visualization is quite appropriate. Mayer, a professor of political science at Loyola University Chicago, states that “[t]he U.S. Department of Labor classifies a business as a sweatshop if it violates two or more labor laws governing wages and overtime, child labor, homework, occupational health and safety, and so forth” (616). While Calder, an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s University, explains that sweatshops “[…]are manufacturing centers where workers are forced to work excessively long hours in unsafe working conditions for very little pay[…] and arguably violate their workers basic human rights. Sweatshop workers often work ten- to sixteen-hour days with little opportunity for breaks[…]” (265). These two descriptions fit together. While there are sweatshops in North America, the majority of sweatshops are in developing countries; “[s]weatshops exist when there are some very poor people who cannot find a better way to sustain themselves and their family than by working at sweatshops[…]” (Calder 265). Sweatshops exist where people have such horrendous options in front of them that they choose to be exploited.

All sweatshops exploit and “[e]very exploitative relationship begins with an initial inequality that makes the taking advantage possible” (Mayer 610). Sweatshop workers are paid less than fair wages, work longer than reasonable hours, and are in unclean and unsafe workplaces, “[b]ut victims of exploitation [in sweatshops] never have less than before, and in fact they usually gain by being exploited” (Mayer 607). The exploitation that sweatshop workers take on is by choice, and is generally “[…]mutually advantageous[…] and not tainted by threats” (Mayer 608). The owners of multinational corporations that set up workplaces in developing countries have not created the troubling economic situations that the citizens are dealing with. They have not rid the countries of their labor laws or safety regulations. They certainly have not un-educated the population, but they did create a place for these people to work and earn a wage. Mayer explains that “[e]xploiters[…] are opportunists and they do take unfair advantage, but their exploitation is beneficent[…] More importantly, they do not create the disadvantages which they exploit” (608). They instead create an opportunity for these workers to have a better option; as “[w]ere it not for such jobs, these laborers might starve in the rural communities from which they were recruited, work as prostitutes, beg on the streets, or pick through garbage” (Rothstein 41). Multinational corporations grant better lives.

Now, “[…]though the sweatshop pay is unfair, the workers rationally consent to such unfairness without any coercion (direct or indirect) and are not made any worse off from being offered the job” (Meyers 621-622). The workers being given the opportunity to work in sweatshops around the world are grateful; those in poverty dream about their children being lucky enough to have employment in such a place. Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute at Columbia University, shares a story showing this exactly: “[…]Tratiwoon, a young Indonesian woman who, with her three-year-old son, earns a dollar a day by selling scrap scavenged from a garbage dump in Jakarta. When[…] asked[…] about the sweatshops that surround the dump, she ‘spoke dreamily about how much she would like her son to get a job in one when he is older.’ To people like Tratiwoon[…] ‘a sweatshop represents a leap in living standards’” (41). How can we claim these workers are victims with a life dream like that being the reality? You can’t according to Heintz, an assistant research professor at the Political Economy Research Institute, University of Massachusetts, who claims, “[the] logic is straightforward: new manufacturing jobs offer a higher income for workers in developing countries than do alternative economic activities. Simply put, [it is] believe[d] the benefits of the job creation outweigh any problem of poverty wages” (223). Sweatshop employees are benefiting from their work. They are being granted a better life: a job that they can work at proudly. Yet for some reason we have activists running around trying to fix the sweatshop crisis?

Mayer shares that “[s]weatshop employees[…] earn more money in this job than in any of their alternatives or they would do something else. They gain and so do their employers; the transaction is mutually advantageous” (607). No one is forcing workers in developing countries, or in North America to work at sweatshops. No one is dragging them kicking and screaming into the workplaces. “A worker chooses a particular job because she prefers it to her next-best alternative. To us, a low-paying job in Honduras or in Los Angele’s garment district seems horrible, but for many adults and children, it’s the best choice they have. You don’t make someone better off by taking away the best of her bad options” (Snyder 390). Sweatshops are not the end of the road for most workers; many of the workers have other options, but they choose to work in sweatshops since they can make the most money. They could choose to work in “[…]subsistence agriculture or day labor or scavenging, but these options are worse than employment in a sweatshop. The alternatives may involve no exploitation by others, but the exploitative option is viewed as preferable because it pays better (albeit badly)” (Mayer 609). These workers are making the best choices for themselves, their families, and their children. They have the right to do so, just like anyone else.

While “[t]hird world workers want to toil in sweatshops, recognizing that it improves their prospects,” (Rothstein 41) we seem to think we should change the way things are done. We clearly have different standards of living in the Western world than any developing country. Rothstein feels that “[i]t is arrogant (or worse) for Westerners to try to prevent [workers in developing countries] from exercising their judgment about what is in their own best interests” (Rothstein 41). Who are we to decide for them where they will or will not work? Who are we to take away the best wage they have ever had?

Many in the West do not seem to realize what a huge opportunity sweatshops are for workers around the world. No, sweatshops are not ideal, but trying to improve the standards in them can create havoc for their workers. As Heintz points out “[o]ne effect of implementing better standards can be a loss of much-needed employment opportunities” (224). Activists fight for the rights of the workers in sweatshops and believe they are making a difference in the workers lives, but they may actually cause the workers their jobs. A case Cravey, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina, explains that “[w]ith wider support, [the] workers [at the PVH factory in Guatemala] signed the first collective bargaining agreement in the maquila sector in Guatemala. Unfortunately however, PVH shifted production to nearby locations and closed the factory shortly afterward” (205). Activists don’t necessarily help the workers in the long run, as when a nation enforces “[…]minimum wages or working conditions, industry[…] move[s] to one where there [is] no enforcement. The result [is] destruction of hopes and dreams, indeed the lives, of workers in these plants” (Rothstein 41). Workers will be left in ruins with no jobs, and activists will go home to their comfortable Western lives, and continue on. Who is that really helping?

Sweatshops change lives. They better lives. Those lives are not ours in the West; they are the lives of workers in developing nations around the world. Consumers need to keep buying goods created in sweatshops so developing countries can continue to grow and develop, by keeping their citizens employed.

Works Cited

Calder, Todd. “Shared Responsibility, Global Structural Injustice, and Restitution.” Social Theory & Practice 36.2 (2010): 263-290. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Cravey, Altha J. “Students and The Anti-Sweatshop Movement.” Antipode 36.2 (2004): 203-208. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Heintz, James. “Beyond Sweatshops: Employment, Labor Market Security and Global Inequality.” Antipode 36.2 (2004): 222-226. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Mayer, Robert. “Sweatshops, Exploitation, and Moral Responsibility.” Journal Of Social Philosophy 38.4 (2007): 605-619. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Meyers, C. D. “Moral Duty, Individual Responsibility, and Sweatshop Exploitation.” Journal Of Social Philosophy 38.4 (2007): 620-626. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Rothstein, Richard. “Defending Sweatshops.” Dissent (00123846) 52.2 (2005): 41-47. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

Snyder, Jeremy. “Needs Exploitation.” Ethical Theory & Moral Practice 11.4 (2008): 389-405. Academic Search Premier. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.


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