Is Sweatshop Labor Something to Celebrate?

My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few.
– Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia University Economist, United Nations Advisor and Earth Institute Founder

Sweatshop, tend to the be the universal label for places with the worst possible working conditions.  The term conjures up images of third world people, working long hours under unsafe conditions. They have few if any bathroom breaks, are exposed to hazardous material and frequent abuse from bosses and over-seers.  This is not to mention, pay so low as to be comparable with slavery, and the use of child labor.  It is undeniable that such workshops, are the source of many of the consumer products that make life for us first worlders as rich as it is, and it is these conditions that keep the many of the prices we pay low.

This reality is not ones us first worlders like to think about. The mere thought of our favorite fleece or running shoes, being assembled by the hands of poorly treated workers, especially child workers is unsettling. It seems that many Americans also feel to busy with our own lives to spen much time worrying much about some kid in Shitcrapistan.  One gets the impression that, within many of us, lies the residual colonial attitude that we are improving the lives of foreign savages by giving them the opportunity to assemble Air Jordans.

Many of my libertarian and conservative friends will happily (in some cases gleefully) point out, that if these people could find a better means of supporting themselves they would not be sweatshop laborers. The more vulgar of these sort go as far to argue that we should applaud corporations that use sweatshops for improving the lives of the poor. In fact, I would only be slightly surprised if I were to hear that some of them were planning a sweatshop party to celebrate all the good things sweatshops do: We’re turning up the heat and locking the bathroom, bring your own sewing machine. As such, one has to love the irony of comfy-living westerners and tenured economics professors, who are quite safe from the market forces they wish to unleash on the rest of the world’s population.

That said, they at least have a point. I’m sure it is true that sweatshop labor is the best option available for many people.  As such, I recognize abolishing sweatshops while failing to correct the underlying circumstances that produce them would be disastrous.  I also don’t want to boycott the world’s  poorest workers out of their jobs.  But, I’m also not going to praise or celebrate the companies that exploit them.  This is especially true when the products in question are hundred dollar basketball shoes, or brand name hand bags that sell for a small fortune but only cost a few bucks to make. If rich Americans and Europeans are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for something, the kids making it should be getting most of this money, rather than the fat cats at the top of the corporate hierarchy, far removed from the actual production process. I also will not applaud or say anything positive about a company who overseers actively dehumanize members of their work force.

The same goes for companies that are in league with governments that actively suppress the working class.  I’m talking about corporations that participate in military coups, have used the military to crush strikes or in anyway use the state or paramilitaries to limit their laborers options.  I cannot help the but, be sympathetic with the school of thought that wants to blame all the poverty that makes sweatshops possible on state intervention, and I think a good case can be made. My understanding is many colonial governments used taxation and massive land theft to force people out of subsistence agriculture and used violence to create huge disparities in access to land and resources. It is my understanding that places where sweatshop labor is common are places where large scale land theft and repression of workers freedoms have produced large landless populations of would be laborers.

On The other hand, maybe all developing countries really do need to go through a sweatshop phase.  The United States and western Europe certainly did.  If so, then this strikes me as an unfortunate reality of capitalism.  After all, image how many brilliant people will never reach their full potential, because they never had any choice, but work some tedious sweatshop job. Perhaps there are countless would-be Einsteins and Motzarts laboring in the worlds factories and plantations, who will have the chance to realize their full potential.

The whole thing, rather than being something to celebrate, strikes me as a sign of a major problem.  After all, with modern technology we produce enough food to feed the worlds, population, so why should anyone work on starvation wages?  I do not have any easy answers to the questions raised here, but it seems that working for workers empowerment is an important step.  I have recently read about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has successfully made agreements for better wages and working conditions with several major food retailers, improving the lives of  some 30,000 farmworkers. The cool thing is they have done this without government assistance or recognition, which flies in the face of the stereotype that Labor Unions require state intervention or force to see victory.

Anyway, it is time that Americans spent more time pondering where their consumer goods come from and how to make the world a better place, for the people who make them.  I would love to hear any of our readers thoughts on this topic.

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One Response to Is Sweatshop Labor Something to Celebrate?

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