This past weekend I attended a bunch of lectures on campus put on by the Institute of Humane Studies. It was advertized as addressing capitalism and its discontents, however it almost exclusively promoted capitalism and denied its discontents any viable position. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted those who oppose capitalism to have dominated discussion, but I would have made for a more profitable discussion for everyone if both sides had been able to adequately present their views.
One topic in particular really caught my attention. One of the speakers, Benjamin Powell, presented a lecture entitled ‘In Defense of Sweatshops’. I was interested in how Powell would surely redefine sweatshops such that they did not encompass the factories with terrible working conditions and low pay that usually come to mind. However, he did not. In his defense, Powell did stipulate that the sweatshops he was defending did not include those that coerced its workers to continue to work at the factory. The main theme of the entire weekend seemed to be liberty, so uncoerced labor is extremely important. Coercion aside, Powell argued that working conditions in 3rd world sweatshops were actually better than other occupations in 3rd world countries, and that Western companies were actually improving lives. By offering citizens of developing countries better alternatives than what they would have had otherwise, we are effectively making their lives better off.
As the lone philosophy major in a sea of economics and political majors, I did my best to defend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the rights of sweatshop workers. It was interesting to see the range of responses. Some simply laughed and said that such rights were too ideological, while others argued that such rights actually hurt workers by infringing on their ability to work overtime and make choices for themselves.
The position that enforcing some of these rights in the 3rd world is detrimental to the workers themselves seems to hinge on a very relativistic notion of ‘better off’. The economist argues that if a rational agent ‘freely’ chooses one option over another, then it makes him or her better off. This of course assumes perfect knowledge, as well as a very narrow definition coercion. The economist often uses these terms without defining them properly. However this does not refute the empirical evidence that workers in sweatshops make a considerable amount more than workers working in traditional occupations. Traditional work often is much more labor intensive and overall more strenuous than sweatshop labor. Are Western companies outsourcing jobs actually doing the 3rd world a favor? Is Powell correct in arguing that by spending more money on goods produced by sweatshops we are actually aiding in the fight against poverty?
Here’s a link to Powell’s online article about sweatshops: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2008/Powellsweatshops.html