Sweatshops are abhorrent. But what if the only viable way to help garment workers is to continue consuming?
My left-leaning political ideology has (quite plainly) impacted the way I internalise and process the mainstream narrative around sweatshops. As far as I'm concerned, sweatshops are evil machines for modern slavery, a means to repress entire communities caught in an unmercifully capitalistic system.
The solution? Work towards increasing wages, forcing big corporations to be more responsible about their fierce out-sourcing, allowing unions to work collectively to elevate labour standards, demanding safer working conditions and raising continued awareness about sweatshops.
But as I continue to dig deeper into sweatshops and their related injustices I realise that these are naively simplistic goals.
Image Credit: Christine und Hagen Graf
Consumer Vs Garment Worker
First of all, this line of thinking is consumer-centric. I am propelled largely by feelings of guilt (profiting off of the misery of someone who got a bad roll of the cosmic dice) and sympathy (thinking of those men, women and children who earn a pittance working in unsafe conditions). Eradicating sweatshops would be a victory for activists everywhere but would that victory translate into a better life for garment workers?
Second, in my desire to right wrongs and be a responsible consumer, I have conveniently glossed over the immense complexity of the problem, favouring a utopian ideal that has no provable basis in reality. What would happen today if all sweatshops were eradicated? Would those workers be able to find better employment elsewhere?
The Other Side Of The Aisle
Neoclassic economic theories - among others - advocate the benefits of a free market, in which workers have a chance to at least earn a wage, however little.
Economists have also cautioned against knee-jerk reactions such as boycotts which could worsen the plight of garment workers in the developing word.
In a quest to learn more about this school of thought, I reached out to Dr. Benjamin Powell, author of Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy and director of the Free Market Institute. In his book, Dr. Powell defends sweatshops in the developing world, arguing that they have a rightful, natural place in the global economy.
Here are some excerpts from our email interview, edited for length:
Question: What should be (or will be) the next phase in a country's economic trajectory, after sweatshops? How will this come about and what might it look like in the textile industry?
Sweatshops bring with them some of the proximate causes of economic development: physical capital, technology, and the opportunity to improve people’s human capital. With these three things worker productivity goes up and workers start getting bid away from textile manufacture and into other light manufacturing at first and then more advanced industries.
Question: Given that there is some argument for justifiable labour violations, how should trade unions in developing countries protect themselves?
Trade unions are not a major part of the improvement that takes place in moving from pre-industrial standards to wealthy countries. Unions don’t make the workers more productive generally. Productivity increases are what dramatically raise workers’ wages and improve conditions over time.
At what point do we say 'stop'? Meaning, should we set a time-frame for these poor economies to develop? And at what point does it become just exploitation i.e. the developed world merely profiting from low-wages and generally negligent human rights enforcement in poverty-stricken economies?
There is no date where “we” say stop to anyone. The process of development is a spontaneous order that must be free to play out. For it to create development countries need a strong rule of law, strong enforcement of private property rights and a large degree of economic freedom. These are the fundamental causes of long run development. When they are present sweatshops are a stage that economies move through and do so increasingly rapidly. When these fundamental causes of development are absent they are nearly impossible to impose from the outside. In these cases, sweatshops are a crutch that is workers’ least bad option and we still shouldn’t say “stop” and take that least bad option away. But we shouldn’t expect rapid development either.
Indeed, it is not the responsibility of MNEs to correct the background injustices of a country but should they not outsource responsibly? They wield a significant amount of economic power. As such, could they not make it known that they expect - at the very least - safe and humane working conditions? Should we as consumers hold them responsible?
The background injustices are best addressed by host country governments improving their laws to better respect the rights of their citizens. This includes their property rights and economic freedom rights. Unfortunately, this type of reform needs to be demanded by the citizens themselves. It is nearly impossible for outsiders to do it.
Despite their proven inefficiency, boycotts still tend to be a knee-jerk reactions/manifestations of consumer anger. What if consumers just bought less from 'fast-fashion' brands and instead, patronised more responsible/ethical brands? Can we think about a way to consume more equitably, allowing us to:
Support ethical brands that provide labour opportunities (albeit on a smaller-scaler) in marginalised communities, signalling with our dollars that we value ethical practices and brands.
There is a lot of fraud in this because people prefer to feel good without working to insure that they do good. I’m not against it per se. But one must make sure that the work is continuing to be done in the poor countries. Not simply shifted to where market competition already dictates living wages and good conditions.
Reduce consumption of 'fast-fashion' labels which often are produced in sweatshop-like conditions.
This just reduces the demand for their labor and throws them into worse jobs at lower wages. We should increase consumption if we want to help these workers.
From a personal and ethical point of view, I find it difficult to completely subscribe to this outlook. It requires a certain passivity on the part of consumers when in reality, we should be scrutinising our mindless consumption and finding ways to be more efficient consumers. It also demands blind faith in a system that has concentrated power in the hands of an elite few.
That said, it also provides a much needed dose of reality to counter my utopian ideals which aren't entirely actionable at this point in time.
So, what is the way forward? At the moment, I don't think there is one right or wrong answer but it doesn't hurt you nor anyone else to be a more responsible consumer.