Sweatshops are pretty easy to hate. They are crammed full of oppressed impoverished people working twelve, or fourteen hours a day in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. They get paid a dollar a day, and have no workplace representation. It’s dangerous, unhealthy, and exploitative.
So naturally, when we consider that conditions of the workers in the poor world who make so much of our apparel and toys in the rich world, we feel bad.
But why is it that we feel so bad? It’s not just because people in the poor world are working in these conditions. Instead, we feel bad because we compare it to ourselves. We feel bad because we have something better. In the poor world, they don’t.
That last point is important. The people in the poor world – the people who work in sweatshops – don’t have any better options. Thus, the presence of a sweatshops is a drastic statement of the absolute impoverishment of a community – such factories could never function if there was a better way for residents to make money. If so, employers wouldn’t have a labor force willing to work for such low wages.
See, the uncomfortable truth about sweatshops is that everyone works there by choice. No matter how bad sweatshops are, the workers being paid a pittance have come to the conclusion that it is a better option than having no employment at all. These are societies where the alternative is scavenging, begging, or in some cases, dying. A job in a factory, by comparison, looks pretty good.
That’s basically the idea behind the pro-sweatshop movement: sure, it’s pretty crap job, but at least it is a job. No one is forcing them to work there, and if the money wasn’t worth it to them, they wouldn’t.
This argument is nothing new. It is a common point of development-focused economists such as Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Krugman , or journalists such as Nicholas Kristof . These people argue that sweatshops help the poorest of the poor get onto the economic ladder.
There is a lot of empirical evidence to support this idea. The rapid of growth of China and India over the past few decades began with the supply of unbelievably cheap labor in those countries. America went through a similar stage itself – back in the 1800s, sweatshop conditions in the workplace were the norm, and were the basis for our growth into the richest country in the world. In economic growth, sweatshops may be an evil, but they are a necessary one.
Despite this, there are numerous advocacy groups that try to shut down sweatshops, and portray them simply as slave labor. Across the country, people campaign to boycott businesses that are employing the poorest of the poor. This, clearly, is not helpful.
Similarly, there are advocacy groups working to pressure companies that use sweatshops to raise their wages in accordance with what we feel is fair in America. But, we must remember how businesses work. It’s about efficiency. They open sweatshops because they are cost-effective, and they are only cost-effective because wages are so low. If there is enough pressure to raise wages from external factors, then the factory will close. No business will run a factory that is not profitable.
So how can we help those employed in sweatshops? It’s simple: by respecting their right to make their own choices. If they choose to work in a factory, we should not work to deprive them of their employment. But once these same workers decide to demand higher wages or safer conditions for themselves, we in the rich countries (providing the demand for their services, after all) should support them in their decisions. Some groups understand this. For example, Students Against Sweatshops here at Cornell makes sure to “never tell workers how to make their lives better. Instead, [they] support workers who try to take their lives into their own hands” according to group president Fil Eden ’10. This, clearly, is the most helpful to help these needy people.
Ultimately, the sweatshop question is a simple one. It’s not about whether we should allow businesses to employ the poor people of the world in conditions we don’t feel are fair – in a country where our minimum wage is ten times what a sweatshop worker makes in a day, we are not the ones to judge. Instead, it’s about whether we respect the poorest people in the world enough to let them make their own choices, and whether we have the tenacity to support them in whatever decisions they do make.
So next time you buy something made in a sweatshop, you are funding the evil operation, sure, but at the same time, a bit of your money is going help one of the neediest people in the world survive another day. How bad can that really be?