December 19, 2009 9:02 AM   Subscribe

"Sweatshops"? Overseas labor. looking for pros and cons; discussion on how to define/evaluate whether work done overseas is beneficial or harmful for the workers and country involved.

1. What is the point below which people are harmed? How is this arrived at, and what factors are included? (wages, hours, conditions, benefits)
2. Are there organizations that monitor these issues? How to find companies that voluntarily submit to examination?
posted by ebesan to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Google obligingly provided this list of sweatshop monitoring organizations. And here's an excerpt from a nice potted summary of the pros and cons, with a bibliography following:

International business ethics has taken on a new urgency with the emergence of globalization. Low transaction and communication costs, driven by advances in computer and telecommunication technologies, have made the global market, once a metaphor (and at least for some, an aspiration), truly global. Transnational business is increasingly the rule rather than the exception, especially in the production of shoes, clothing, automobiles, and other commodity goods. Nowhere has this urgency been felt more acutely than in the debate over so-called sweatshop labor—the hiring of workers in less developed countries, usually at wages and under work conditions prevailing in those countries, to manufacture products for the developed world.

Opponents of sweatshop labor argue that multinational firms like Nike wrongfully exploit poor work and wage conditions in less developed countries. They argue that, when contracting for labor in less developed countries, multinational firms are duty-bound to pay living wages and ensure that work conditions more closely approximate those that prevail in the developed world.

In a paper much reprinted and anthologized, Ian Maitland (1997) argues that sweatshops constitute for many less developed countries an important rung on the ladder to economic development. Although small relative to the developed world, wages paid in factories serving multinationals like Nike exceed, often by a wide margin, those prevailing in the surrounding economy. The same is true of working conditions. Consequently, sweatshops are a force for the better in the less developed countries in which they appear. They demonstrate the abilities of the local work force, serve to raise local wages as local firms and other multinationals compete for the best employees, and through the extra-market wages they pay facilitate the personal savings and capital formation on which economic development depends. Demanding that multinationals pay even more, so-called living wages—by which is generally meant wages that closely approximate those prevailing in the developed world—is to effectively deny workers in the less developed world the opportunity to compete in the world labor market. For the outcome of a mandatory living wage is not sweatshop workers being paid more, but multinationals keeping factories in places where the market wage parallels the living one (usually the developed world). This promises to leave sweatshop workers working for the (lower) prevailing wages and in the (poorer) prevailing conditions that their local economies, absent the multinationals, offer. According to Maitland, opponents of sweatshop labor are guilty of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

Maitland's critics have replied generally by disputing the effects that flow from living wage mandates and other proposals for overcoming sweatshop labor. Denis Arnold and Norman Bowie (2003), for example, argue that Kantian respect for persons demands payment of a living wage. They maintain that the minimum wage research of economists David Card and Alan Krueger (1995) demonstrates that raising the wages of low-wage workers lacks the unemployment effects that Maitland predicts. As sweatshop workers earn wages that are usually below those of U.S. minimum wage workers, it is likely that they will escape the unemployment effect. Just as which corporate analogy (firm-state, firm-contract) is more compelling depends upon how one understands the relative and absolute availability of exit from the firm, which sweatshop argument is more compelling depends, at least in part, on the economics. Where the Card and Krueger study fits within the larger body of research about the minimum wage is a matter of dispute among economists. How economists come down on it will have implications for at least one, important aspect of the sweatshop labor debate in business ethics.
posted by timeo danaos at 9:23 AM on December 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector by T. A. Frank
posted by sharkfu at 9:42 AM on December 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Sweatshops and other first world economic transplants kill native enterprise and the potential for native economic freedom/agency. The sweatshop laborers might make higher wages than before, but those jobs will never go anywhere. Sweatshops controlled by foreign companies interested in producing really cheap stuff are not going to evolve into better jobs in a few years or a few decades. To the locals, it's a (possible) short term gain for a long term loss.

Also, the argument that because someone is now making a wage they are better off is highly suspect. If first world development puts people who were previously engaged in productive but non-wage labor within the local economy into sweatshop jobs where they make some money but now have to pay dearly for things that were previously provided for free or reasonable barter, what do they really gain? I'm certainly not arguing that some populations should be kept out of the global monied economy, but they should not be forced into it and they certainly should not be forced into it in so that U.S. suburbanites can pay $10 less for t-shirts.

The combination of sweatshops and dumping incredibly cheap discarded products (clothing, for example) onto developing markets kills native economic growth. Zambia, for instance, had a local textile industry producing local clothing styles before Western-style development and the dumping of discarded U.S. clothing onto their market destroyed it. The rationale that the most efficient, inexpensive means of production should always win out runs into ethical trouble in a situation where people who already have an enormous amount of capital can dump cheap industry on a market, preventing it from developing past the provision of raw resources or cheap goods. Yes, many of these markets have no capital of their own, but that has a lot to do with several centuries of colonial exploitation. Planting sweatshops just continues colonialism. If we really wanted to develop the third world, we would be investing in growing local economies with the potential to evolve beyond just resource extraction and sweatshop labor.

I talked with an economics professor a while back about economic disparity in the third world and got a lot about the market working these inequalities out through the choices of rational, informed consumers. I'll be more impressed by the current economic calculus when it includes factors for "region has been fucked over by imperial powers for several centuries" and "Americans have no idea where their shit comes from in the incredibly complex global market." Where does one find a "rational, informed consumer"? How many years of my life would I have to devote to researching product sources before I could make those kinds of informed choices. I'd have to boycott electronics and most complex manufactured goods; the days when corporations controlled, owned, or even understood everything in their production chain are long, long gone. If the corporation selling me something doesn't really know where it is sourced from, how am I supposed to?

The answer to third world poverty is not the individualization of responsibility by first world consumers and more "free" market as usual. Simple metrics about the wages, benefits, and mistreatment of laborers in the third world also do not capture the systemic forces at work here.

On preview: Yes, after development has completely disrupted the original local economy, firing those wage slaves will result in child prostitution and starvation; those people now have nothing to fall back on. That doesn't mean that it is OK to continue sweatshop labor because we have now smashed the original economy to the point that people cannot go back.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 11:21 AM on December 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

You can say what you will for adults, but having worked for a few years now in 3rd world contexts, I've seen first hand the direct impact that child labor has on a country's mentality, psyche, ethics, and so forth. If a child has to work it means they are not going to be going to school. You end up with a downward spiral for the country's mean education level, and an residual increase in overall working poor. The economy stays depressed. The country doesn't develop.

There may be arguments at the educated adult level when it comes to cheap labor, but I'll just wildly throw the speculation out there that most adults who will work on the cheap also haven't had access to a proper education. So - personally, I draw the line pretty firmly at access to education.
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:26 AM on December 19, 2009

If you look at the period since the end of WWII, there are several nations which have used that kind of high-labor low-pay low-tech manufacturing as a way of bootstrapping their economies. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in particular all began that way after the war, and used the increased commerce that resulted to climb the tech ladder, so that now all three nations are among the highest tech nations in the world, with good labor standards (relatively speaking) and decent per-capita GDPs.

Malaysia has done the same thing, but it started later and isn't as far up the ladder yet. And India did it, too. In all of those cases it didn't represent a dead end. It was, instead, the first step up the ladder of prosperity.

And now China is doing exactly the same thing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:55 AM on December 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think it boils down to being the lesser of two evils, compared to sex work/subsistance farming. So long as the workers can choose and leave the jobs of their own free will, I have to concede that although they're distasteful, sweatshops are ultimately a net force for good. When the better jobs come, the workers will leave, and when the sweatshops are the best jobs, the workers will join. It's the free market. If the government or some other force makes people join the sweatshop against their will, that's an entirely different situation.

What's best is to encourage the companies to treat the workers better. Write big brands like Walmart and the GAP to say that you're opposed to sweatshops where the workers are beaten, machinery is unsafe, or the workers are not allowed to unionize. Tell the media you want them to scandalize when a 3rd world factory is horrible, or when a sweatshop worker commits suicide or is beaten severely. Focus on improving the factories, rather than trying to get them shut down, or to keep the child laborers out. The sad reality is that most of the child workers are doing it because their family needs the money, money the family will make via other work. And if the factory is shut down, the jobs that were one step above poverty are traded for plain old poverty.

This is similar to the case with slaughterhouses. While we would like to be high and mighty and say that we will no longer eat meat that wasn't grown locally by family farms, thus moving the food economy slightly closer to a more just system, that won't significantly reduce animal suffering as much as pressuring the biggest purchasers of meat to demand humanely raised beef, as Temple Grandin has advocated. At this point, you're now getting beef that was more humanely and cleanly raised at Burger King than in a school lunch.
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:20 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a fair amount of anthropological study on sweat shops and other forms of exploitative labour practices. If you have access to a good library, especially an academic library, try searching on the terms "special economic zones" and "home work". Aihwa Ong has done a lot of good work in this area, looking especially at how women are exploited. For example, in Mexico women have a lot of problems with sexual harassment and assault by foremen, and a number of women trying to organize or protest the working conditions have been killed.

"Home work" is a very interesting way in which exploitative labour practices are making inroads into Europe and America. There are people assembling car parts at home in America for what works out, in practical terms, to less than $2/hr, with no safety supervision. In Europe there are families assembling shoes and other things under similar conditions. Besides the wage and safety issues, the other problem with homework is that child labour is virtually undetectable. The book Immediate Struggles talks about these practices in Spain.
posted by carmen at 12:34 PM on December 19, 2009

Chocolate Pickle: Many African countries are economically worse off now after several decades of sweatshop type labor and "development." Yes, some countries have successfully bootstrapped themselves, but many others have not. Also, a huge nation with a strong central government, relatively intact culture, and a reasonable amount of capital like China is very different from a small, economically depressed nation with no bargaining power. China has been able to dictate the terms of its sweatshop economy, allowing it to grow beyond just sweatshops. Japan's post World War II economic miracle worked so well because U.S. investment was growing local industry in the hopes of promoting democracy, as opposed to setting the country up to supply the U.S. with an endless flow of cheap goods. I don't know about South Korea and Taiwan, but I'm guessing they had some factors setting them apart from the many countries that have been mired in "development" and sweatshop-type labor for decades now.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 1:00 PM on December 19, 2009

I think it boils down to being the lesser of two evils, compared to sex work/subsistance farming.

Honestly I'm totally flabbergasted that you would compare the two. I'm not saying that subsistence farming is necessarily some sort of worker's paradise but it's the foundation for the majority of the world's traditional cultures. I don't think working in a sweat shop is in any way a better way to go.
posted by sully75 at 1:04 PM on December 19, 2009

DtH, it doesn't always work. For one thing, you need a relatively uncorrupt government who takes the long view (which is why it's failed in Africa; you have to look long and hard to find any place there which isn't mired in graft and corruption).

But looking at history since the war, it's been the only real path for non-industrial nations to industrialize and become prosperous. It certainly works better than charity (aka "foreign aid") which is notable for not having a single success story.

It's far from being a perfect solution. It doesn't work everywhere. And while a country is in the early stages, it can result in terrible working conditions and employee abuse. But in the long run (decades), taking a nation as a whole, it's the best route available out of third world poverty.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:32 PM on December 19, 2009

Chocolate Pickle,

Africa and other parts of the world are in such horrible shape because they've been through the economic and cultural meat grinder of colonialism. So many African countries are continuations of old colonial boundaries and make no real sense in cultural or other terms, etc... After centuries of colonizing Africa and other parts of the world in order to provide raw materials through basically corporate local governments, Europe said "so long and thanks for all the capital, suckers." Later, Europe and the U.S. came back and said, "hey, we can get you on your feet if you'll take these loans you'll never be able to pay back and allow us to set up more monolithic, extractive export industries that will really fuck you over when the global economy fluctuates." I'm talking more on the governmental/political level here, but corporations behave similarly, and I don't think it is possible to separate first world government interference in the third world from similar corporate interference. Many aid and development programs have failed because of unethical or illegal behavior on the part of first world corporations hired to carry them out.

So, when people (Europeans and Americans) argue that sweatshop capitalism would work in Africa and other places if only the governments weren't so corrupt, they're conveniently ignoring a lot of historical context. They're also ignoring corruption in their own governments. I don't think it's fair for us to say, "hey, we can't really help you because we broke you really badly a while back and now it won't be profitable." How is sweatshop capitalism the best route available out of third world poverty when it has already been going for decades in many parts of the world while only begetting more poverty? The first world is vastly wealthy. Much of that wealth is taken by a very small percentage of the first world's population. The average American or Brit will never see it, but it still exists. If even a small percentage of the booty taken by our modern nobility was directed towards development programs aimed at building balanced local economies that would eventually be able to stand on their own in the world market, the results would be amazing. But that would require that we take the long view...

We see China as an emerging economic powerhouse. The economic growth in China and other parts of Asia is astonishing, but it is hardly an emergent phenomenon. China's artisan economy produced the vast majority of the world's goods prior to the industrial revolution and the forced opening of the orient by Europeans. Most of those goods never left Asia, but the fact stands that China was vastly more productive than Europe. We had guns. They had a vastly superior economy. We knocked them down, hard. They're getting back up by adopting our economic model. It will be interesting to see how that goes for China and the rest of the world over the next few decades. It is interesting to consider what the world would be like if China had struck on the techniques of the industrial revolution around the same time Europe did.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:37 PM on December 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

DtH, I'm not a big one for worrying about who is to blame for things. I tend to look at situations as they currently exist and look to see what works and what doesn't.

Low-tech high-labor early industrialization does work, or at least does have a chance of working. Foreign aid, even if you dress it up as "reparations" (or more recently as "Climate Justice"), has never worked.

And pointing at people and screaming "It's YOUR fault!" is useless. It may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't solve anything. No matter how we got to where we are, that is where we are now and we have to move forward from here. Arguing about who got us lost doesn't help us figure out how to get unlost.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:49 PM on December 19, 2009

This is turning into a debate, and that's not what AskMe is supposed to be for.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:50 PM on December 19, 2009

I want to point out that "sweatshop capitalism" has NOT been tried in africa. Most sub-saharan african would love to get a so-called "sweatshop" job. Let's get real here. People are literally earning less than $2 a day working hard at farming work. You offer them A job where they can earn $5 a day for only 10 hours of work and they'll thank god for this opportunity.
posted by aga98mtl at 4:19 PM on December 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Chocolate Pickle: It's not about assigning blame, it's about effective strategy. Insisting on the continuation of the strategies that got us lost in the first place will definitely not help us get unlost. If colonialism got us lost (lost meaning the current level of economic disparity in the world) and sweatshops and most development programs constitute a continuation of colonialism, why should sweatshops be our roadmap for progress? I'm pointing out the really unethical things we have done in the past because we continue to do the same things and act like the results should be different.

Obviously, just throwing reparation money at the problem is not the solution. However, insisting that all development in the third world must make a profit for some business or government back in the first world is a continuation of unethical colonial practices. Changes in our regulatory system here in the U.S. are slowly making corporations culpable for environmental and social harm committed some time in the past (for instance, CERCLA/Superfund). If we are establishing this precedent at home, why should it not be extended abroad to the greatest extent possible?

The OP asked a question about a highly contentious issue. There will be some debate. I feel like I've said my piece at this point. If someone says something particularly engaging, I might step back in.

aga98mtl: That depends on what part of Africa you are talking about. Also, development programs that shift Africans into low income export farming are not that different from sweatshops, at least in terms of the effect on the locals. Would you rather work in horribly hot interior conditions that slowly break your body and mind or horribly hot exterior conditions that do the same thing? Further, the idea that people in Africa were scratching in the dirt before development came along is just wrong. Yes, many areas of Africa are experiencing severe hardship. However, many African communities that have been adversely affected by development schemes or outside industry were doing quite well before their existing economies were taken apart. Just because someone is not living in a monied economy (and therefor not making much money) does not mean that they are destitute and engaged in back breaking labor. If you want to bring people into the global monied economy on terms that are good for them, dumping cheap industry on their soil is not the way to go.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 5:39 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why don't you trust people to make their own best choices for themselves, instead of assuming that you know better for them? If people choose to work in "sweatshops" it's because they have decided that is their best option. You may see it as "harmful," but they've decided for themselves that it is a better or at least less harmful than their other options.

If you're concerned about the conditions in sweatshops, the answer isn't to take the sweatshop jobs away (through regulation or boycotting products produced with sweatshop labor) because you're just taking away their best option and forcing them into worse options. The answer is to work to create better options than sweatshops. Take the time, energy, and money you would otherwise spend on opposing sweatshops and invest it into school programs for poor children in those countries instead.
posted by Jacqueline at 6:17 PM on December 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have a simple rule: If I wouldn't approve of a family-member or close friend working in a particular place, then I shouldn't give my money to them. If I don't have transparency into a particular place, err on the side of caution. Simple rules are good for me at least.

Yeah, sure we Humans can justify our behavior pretty well. It's funny how good the brain is at making us feel like we're doing the right thing, when we're not.
posted by TheOtherSide at 6:31 AM on December 20, 2009

DtH: I admit it was awkward that I put sex work and subsistence farming right next to each other. Sex work is obviously much more dehumanizing in this context.

However, so long as people can choose between subsistence farming, factory work, or (yes, even) sex work, I think it's more just. They can do the jobs they want or need to do to make ends meet. In addition, they should be allowed to quit. That's the good side to capitalism. If their government or a bunch of thugs force them into sex work or factory work, that's not okay.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:09 AM on December 20, 2009

Er, I'm sorry, I meant Sully75.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:10 AM on December 20, 2009

I was converted to the 'sweatshops are a net benefit' side by a professor in college. Every year he does a globalization debate with another professor, and gets slammed by all the liberals who decry everything he believes. But for me, he had this anecdote about working in a small village in Korea helping with development. When he started, about 40% of the population suffered from a vitamin deficiency that left them legally blind by age 50. They were doing their cultural thing, subsistence farming etc.

Some large corporation came in offering them a sweatshop opportunity. And most of the village took it. There were dangers inherent in the work. But in five years, the population had been able to improve their diet that the vitamin k deficiency that was endemic to their village had completely disappeared.

We're not just guaranteeing that most of them will live to see their grandchildren. We're guaranteeing that those who do live CAN see their grandchildren.

I took one of his classes. And I was always impressed that he never defended the dangers of development. Instead he more accurately explained the dangers of Not Developing. A good list of his articles is here. Hopefully that's closer to what you're looking for.
posted by politikitty at 1:10 PM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

From my point of view, the issue is you can only go one way, that is towards sweat shops and industrialized society. I don't think I've ever heard of a community or society going back to a traditional way of life. And I don't believe that that's a choice. A self-sufficient community is an organic thing that is easily destroyed. It's not like you can bring a factory in your town, have it operate for a decade and then have it shut down because you won't work cheap enough anymore, and then return to the traditional ways you had in the past. That's lost. I've seen it in many communities.

Regarding blindness/improving people's lives, again I stress I don't think traditional communities are panaceas, but they are the fundamental ways that humans have existed for pretty much all of human history. Factories going in developing countries have maybe existed for 90 or so years. So I don't think anyone can really say for certain what the extended long term implications of having a society move into industrialization and whether it can be compared to destroying a traditional society that has existed for millennia.

Regarding a Korean villages Vitamin K deficiency, that's an anecdote, which may or may not be true, reflects the dietary problems of one village and I'm not sure why, even if it were true, that one detail from one community would be enough to sway you towards a phenomenon that influences thousands of communities around the world. That problem might have been easily fixed with some agricultural outreach that wouldn't have involved the destruction of a culture. If it happened in the first place.
posted by sully75 at 8:58 PM on December 20, 2009

What the hell?

Did you miss the part where I later took one of his classes and read a bunch of articles that backed up this basic premise? In fact, if you wanted to, you could even read an article or two and see what you thought. But no, you're just crapping on a thread failing to provide the slightest bit of information to back up your ideological opinion.

Thomas Malthus was pretty convinced that we were going to starve because population growth is much faster than growth in subsistence farming. And without improvements in modern agriculture and capitalism, that basic premise is pretty much true.

You're for preserving traditional societies at the risk of endemic poverty and starvation, when these societies have shown again and again that they prefer modern capitalism with all it's non-starvation.

I'm glad you feel competent to decide you can not only answer the askers question without any outside data, but also intelligent enough to tell billions of people that they're doing it wrong.
posted by politikitty at 9:58 AM on December 21, 2009

"involved the destruction of a culture"

Who are you to decide for other people what the "right" culture is for them to be practicing? If they don't value their own culture enough to preserve it themselves, and would prefer to industrialize and take on a more "Western" culture, who are you to dictate to them that they must keep to their traditions instead? Why don't you trust people to make their own choices?
posted by Jacqueline at 8:48 AM on December 23, 2009

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