From the Comments: Justice and Sweatshops
by Creon Critic, in a rejoinder to Murali
(1.) Should there be any limits on working conditions? Are their any abuses that are intolerable in and of themselves, abuses which need be stopped irrespective of how (supposedly) productive or economically valuable they may be? Can we agree that children for instance should not be engaged in certain labor, no matter how supposedly nimble their fingers (ILO C182)?
(2.) Are there any inalienable rights, as related to the employer-employee relationship? (I do not mean to capture supererogatory acts here. So the analysis that applies to nuclear plant workers who endanger their lives by overexposure to radiation to save the community falls into a different category than workers who are routinely abused in preventable ways, proper ventilation or safety equipment for instance – the article Murali links points out that Nike’s own audit “found that workers in the factory were exposed to the toxic chemical toluene at levels 6 to177 times that allowed by Vietnamese law”)
(3.) Suppose such intolerable and unjustifiable conditions do exist, chattel slavery for instance, is there any onus on us, acting as a community, to sanction goods produced under those abusive conditions?
In my view, the ends don’t justify the means and economic development does not justify sweatshops. Focusing narrowly on development in the future misses the ongoing abuses of today. Even if that future development is very, very important for the welfare of all involved, the welfare of people currently experiencing abuses should not be discounted. I tend to place the burden of proof on the employer to demonstrate that a given deviation from a band of good working conditions/practices is absolutely necessary – and even then, I’d lay a floor below which no employer can go.
These standards are not exclusively first world standards (the linked article gestures to this idea), or standards I arrive at out of a desire for self-righteousness or moral posturing, however good moral posturing makes me feel. Politicians, businesses, and labor groups have already identified spheres of human dignity, human rights, and human decency that are ignored in this analysis of sweatshops as an acceptable pathway to development. These are not standards originating from my imagination, I encourage you to look through the ILO’s database of international labor standards (here). Quite a few widely ratified conventions, and the ILO is constituted by representatives of states, employers, and labor – all three constituencies have jointly produced these conventions. The campaigns of activists seeking better working conditions have the self-same words of the relevant parties to hold them to account. (Moreover, this work precedes John Ruggie’s groundbreaking work as special rapporteur on business and human rights recent endorsement by the UN Human Rights Council.)
Altogether, I see exchange in extremis as deeply suspect. Feminist theorists refer to a certain domain of allegedly voluntary exchange as “desperate exchange” in critiquing some contexts of prostitution, pointing out a college educated Park Avenue call girl =/= a teenage heroin addict abused in childhood and facing ongoing abuse from a pimp. The concept of desperate exchange applies to workers deciding whether or not to take employment at a sweatshop. An agreement made in desperate circumstances can’t be properly categorized as voluntary. An agreement to expose oneself to toxins at 177 times the legal limit cannot be countenanced by the community. Products produced from such an agreement deserve strong community sanction. (Indeed via international organizations, the community has already expressed the impermissibility of such treatment, those campaigning for humane working conditions are simply asking for the imposition of already agreed standards of human dignity.)
Coincidentally, I recently wrote about the Krugman piece James K raised in the other discussion thread, In Praise of Cheap Labor. I’d found the piece wanting, writing,
The fact that the alternatives for workers present such dire hazards should make us even more sensitive to their vulnerability to exploitation by factory owners. The consequent use of factory owners’ superior bargaining position at the expense of their workers’ welfare is certainly not a cause for celebration. Structures that (re)produce this relationship do not deserve our praise.