Saturday, April 2, 2011

Do Sweatshops Fight Poverty?

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:


  1. I'm somewhat inclined towards Powell's position on this subject. While it does not necessarily follow that a freely made choice will leave an individual (such as the sweat-shop worker) better off, it's hard to deny that such enterprises offer opportunities in poor countries that would not otherwise exist. Purely as a matter of morality, certain types of treatment of workers may be inexcusable, but it does not follow that government efforts to establish ideal working conditions will do more good than harm.

    The South African government recently started a crackdown on factories that paid below the minimum wage, which provoked virulent protests by the workers themselves! It seems they preferred being paid below the legal limit if it meant being able to work (and keep in mind that the greater part of the South African population is desperately poor).

    There is a tendency in human rights discourse to think "Wouldn't it be nice if...", and attempting to enshrine whatever fills out that sentence as a human rights. Hence, the UNDHR includes a section on paid vacation time in its list of economic rights. That stipulation was a joke to 95% of the world's population at the time the declaration was issued, and it still is for most of the world's workers. I don't know how many American workers go without paid vacation, but it's certainly a sizable percentage, and I think they would be surprised to learn their human rights were being violated. Who knew?!

    This is not to argue that workplace regulations are never appropriate. But there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach, which is why it's hard for "human rights" as a concept to provide much in the way of meaningful contribution to this issue. It is arguably appropriate to speak of universal rights when people are arbitrarily detained, tortured, or killed. But if they work 12 hours a day as opposed to 10?

  2. If we can talk about universal human rights in the context of torture and arbitrary detention but not the number of hours one can work, is it correct to describe working conditions as a human right? If they're not human rights, are they civil rights? What, if any justification can we use to say that sweatshop workers are not being treated correctly?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.