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writing for godot

Defending Sweatshops

Written by Julian Modiano   
Thursday, 13 February 2014 03:54
Since the Rana Plaza disaster in April, there have been renewed outcries against sweatshops; supposed examples of how destructive the invisible hand of the free market really is. But attacking sweatshops is perhaps one of the most apparent examples of people displaying a remarkable lack of logic regarding economics and human behavior.

It is often heard that sweatshops are immoral and that we should therefore not consume their products. But why, exactly, are they immoral? Because employees are viciously exploited, they receive incredibly low wages, and are forced to work in terrible conditions, of course. And because such a system of exploitation is ‘obviously’ feeding the rich at the expense of the poor, it is right, proper, and most importantly, just, that governments step in to enforce minimum wages and better working conditions.

What people fail to notice is that workers are choosing, out of their own free, voluntary, will, to work at those wages and under those conditions. What that, by definition, means, is that all the other viable alternatives open to them are even worse. The people who work in sweatshops aren’t all idiots – the majority of them must know what they are getting themselves into – and yet thousands of them continue to choose to work there. For people living close to starvation, with little or no hope of improvement, and where work is extremely scarce, working in a sweatshop is a significant step up. So boycotting goods from these businesses is taking jobs away from the people who really need them the most. As an aside, it should also be pointed out that the very multinational firms accused of unethical practices usually pay significantly higher wages than their local counterparts.

In response, people often argue that sweatshop workers aren’t actually free. Just because they are voluntarily working there doesn’t make it any more a choice. Since these people have nothing, and often their very lives are dependent on working at a sweatshop, one can’t consider it their free choice. Workers are forced to work at these sweatshops by their circumstances, and firms are exploiting them by taking advantage of their situation to pay them close to nothing. It’s true, without a doubt, that firms take advantage of poor people in a terrible situation to pay them little. But what is also just as true is that the workers are taking advantage of the multinational corporation in order to gain enough to survive. On an individual basis, what’s the payoff? The firm is saving a few cents per hour per employee; the worker is saving his own life. The basic fact of any voluntary agreement is that both parties gain.

The notion that ‘the poverty’ of the workers forces them to work for such low wages is simply absurd. After all, no one is forcing firms to start a sweatshop in any certain country. They could easily build their factory somewhere else. And if they hadn’t opened the sweatshop the people there would still be alive, only without that option. When the sweatshop opens, they cannot all of a sudden become forced to work there, because it’s only thanks to other individuals that they even have that opportunity in the first place. They would’ve had to exist, in some way or another, regardless of whether or not the sweatshop ever existed. Once the sweatshop does exist, all that’s happening is a firm making an offer, and people freely accepting it.

Of course, I’ve been referring solely to the abstract idea of sweatshops, in which workers really are working voluntarily. In practice, sweatshop managers often violate their contracts and underpay, overwork, or even turn their employees into slaves. Some argue that this is an inevitable outcome of the invisible hand, created by the cutthroat competition of a free market. But forcing workers to work against their will is not the invisible hand of the market; it is the very visible hand of a brute. Fraud and force should obviously be condemned and punished, but that has nothing to do with all of the workers who are working under the terms they agreed to.

Everything I’ve said, however, should be completely irrelevant. After all, provided that employers aren’t deliberately deceiving their employees, or outright forcing them to work against their will, what right does anybody have to tell employers how much to pay their employees, or to force employees not to work under certain conditions? Why should any government be allowed to dictate the terms of a voluntary agreement between consenting adults? By what right? How on earth has it become not only normal, but also proper and just, for government bureaucrats to intervene, with threat of violence and/or imprisonment, in the affairs of adults freely conducting their own business?

The mainstream media have managed to frame the issue as an emotional plea for the sake of human dignity, but the truth is they are advocates of violence. To believe that sweatshops should be regulated means believing that the managers of those firms should be threatened, and that if they persist in their methods, they should be incarcerated (and if they attempt to resist incarceration, they should be shot), all this for daring to strike an entirely voluntary agreement with an employee. How advocates of such a system still manage to assume the moral high ground is truly a mystery. your social media marketing partner
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