Turning The Sweatshop Debate On Its Head

Brian Berkey is an assistant professor in the department of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a 2018-19 Berggruen Institute fellow.

Qaifa is a 20-year-old single mother of two young children living in a rural area of Bangladesh, outside the city of Dhaka. She supported herself primarily through subsistence farming but struggled to provide even the basic necessities for herself and her children, despite working extremely hard. She considered moving to the city and engaging in sex work since she’d make a bit more money, but she was reluctant to do that — it’s dangerous work, and she viewed it as degrading. When a new garment factory opened near the city, however, she eagerly applied for a position there. The pay was low, the hours long and the working conditions far from great. But she’d earn more than she previously did, and she desperately wanted to provide as much opportunity as she could for her children.

The company that operated the factory chose to locate it near Dhaka primarily because there are a lot of people like Qaifa who are willing to work long hours for little pay. Unlike other companies that operate factories in the area, this one was at least committed to providing employees with accurate information about the job, paying everyone what they’re promised and maintaining minimal safety conditions in the workplace. Qaifa was hired, and as a result, her family’s standard of living improved — at least a bit. She was happy to have gotten the job, and after working at the factory for a while, she judged it to be markedly preferable to her other alternatives.

Qaifa preferred working at the factory, even though it could accurately be described as a sweatshop. Employing workers in sweatshops is widely considered a paradigm case of wrongful exploitation. Companies that operate sweatshops, or multinational corporations that source products from locally run sweatshops, are thought by many to be guilty of taking advantage of the desperation of poor people like Qaifa in order to enrich themselves. More specifically, they’re thought to be guilty of wronging their employees by failing to satisfy obligations that they owe to them because they employ them, such as an obligation to pay a living wage, to provide sufficiently safe working conditions and to limit working hours to a reasonable extent. On the most commonly accepted philosophical account of the wrong of exploitation, these companies are guilty of that offense because they used their superior bargaining position to extract an unfair share of the benefits produced by a cooperative enterprise — in this case, the employment relationships they have with their sweatshop workers.

“The pay was low, the hours long and the working conditions far from great. But she’d earn more than she previously did, and she desperately wanted to provide as much opportunity as she could for her children.”

In some cases, including many in the real world, the charge of wrongful exploitation is obviously correct. Companies that employ slave labor or child labor, deceive those they hire about the working conditions that they’ll be subjected to, withhold contractually owed wages, require unpaid overtime work and threaten to fire workers if they don’t comply, or subject workers to verbal or sexual harassment, are clearly guilty of wrongfully taking advantage of their employees’ often desperate circumstances.

There are other cases, however, in which companies employ workers in sweatshop conditions but don’t commit any of the obvious wrongs that doubtlessly deserve a charge of wrongful exploitation. At least some of these cases are characterized by a combination of features that raise an important challenge to those who want to maintain that charge:

  1. The jobs are genuinely better for the workers than any of their other available alternatives.
  2. The workers voluntarily accept the jobs with full (or at least adequate) knowledge of what they will entail in terms of working conditions, pay, hours, etc.
  3. The company fully complies with all of its legal and contractual obligations to the workers.

Virtually no one thinks that companies are obligated to do anything at all to benefit poor people around the world. But if this is right, and if employing people in sweatshops is wrongfully exploitative, then it can be wrong for companies to do something that benefits people like Qaifa (at least a bit), even though it’s perfectly acceptable to do nothing at all to benefit them. This is a puzzling view to accept, especially if one’s objection to sweatshop employment is supposed to be grounded in a concern for the interests of people like Qaifa. As the economist Joan Robinson famously put it, for at least some poor people, “the misery of being exploited … is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”

So what should we make of the fact that the most common views about the ethics of sweatshop employment appear to generate this puzzling implication?

In the remainder of this article, I’ll offer a summary of a defense of a position that, as far as I can tell, virtually everyone, including all of the other philosophers who’ve written on the topic, are opposed to. I believe companies that are in a position to choose whether to locate production in, say, the United States or a much poorer country are, in many cases, morally obligated to choose the latter. And yet, I also believe that, even if all three of the conditions noted above are satisfied, sweatshop employment is still often wrongfully exploitative.

“The misery of being exploited … is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.”
Joan Robinson

For the purposes of this article, a sweatshop is a facility characterized by low wages, long hours and relatively unpleasant and potentially unsafe working conditions. I use the term, in the first place, to refer only to facilities in which the people employed are working voluntarily. Second, I use the term to refer only to those facilities whose employees aren’t deceived in any way about the conditions of their employment. In the debate on the ethics of sweatshops, it’s widely agreed that there can be cases in which sweatshop work of the kind that I’ve described really is better for the workers than their other alternatives, which often include things like subsistence farming, prostitution or other types of work in the informal economy. I assume for the purposes of the argument that this is at least sometimes true, and it’s only in the cases in which it’s true that my argument applies.

With that background in place, consider the following three claims:

  1. Sweatshop workers are wrongfully exploited by the companies that operate their facilities.
  2. Companies aren’t obligated to employ any of the global poor, even if they could. For example, an apparel company that produces all of its products in the U.S., and employs only American workers, isn’t doing anything wrong.
  3. The “nonworseness claim”: If action A is morally permissible, and action B is better for a person than action A, then, so long as B is voluntary for the person, B can’t be morally wrong in virtue of its effects on the person or how the person is treated.

It’s clear why these three claims can’t all be true. If we accept the first and second, then we have to reject the third, the nonworseness claim, since sweatshop work, in the relevant cases, is voluntary and better for workers than the assumed-to-be-permissible option of not hiring the sweatshop workers at all. If we accept the first and third claims, then we have to reject the second, since the nonworseness claim implies that sweatshop workers can only be wrongfully exploited if there’s no permissible option that’s worse for them. And if we accept the second and third claims, then we have to reject the first, since the nonworseness claim plus the permissibility of an option that’s worse for the workers implies that employing them in conditions that are better for them can’t be wrong.

The nonworseness claim doesn’t imply that there can be no such thing as voluntary and mutually beneficial yet wrongful exploitation. Some seem to interpret the claim as implying that just because sweatshop employment is better for the workers than not being employed in a sweatshop, sweatshop employers can’t be doing anything wrong. The sort of principle that could yield that conclusion is one that says that if an action A is better for a person than something else that the actor could do, then action A can’t be wrong. This would imply that no voluntary and mutually beneficial transaction could be wrongfully exploitative.

But the principle is obviously false. Consider the following case:

Person X is drowning. Person Y has a life preserver that he can easily toss to her in order to save her life. But instead of just tossing it to her, Y tells X that he’ll toss it only if X promises to pay him $100,000. (Imagine that he’ll be able to enforce this promise.) X agrees, since being rescued and losing $100,000 is better for her than the alternative of not being rescued.

I take it that everyone will agree that in this case, Y wrongfully exploits X, even though, relative to the option of no transaction at all, X is made better off. The reason why it’s uncontroversial is that everyone agrees that Y is morally obligated to rescue X without demanding payment for doing so. If you can help someone in desperate need at little or no cost or risk to yourself, then it’s morally wrong not to do so. The nonworseness claim doesn’t imply that insisting on being paid $100,000 for tossing the life preserver is morally permissible. An argument from the nonworseness claim to the conclusion that a controversial action is morally permissible needs to point to an intuitively permissible alternative action that’s worse for the person who’s allegedly wronged. In this case, there is no other option that’s both worse for X but also morally permissible for Y.

The sort of action that’s supposed to fill this role in the sweatshop case is something like keeping all production in developed countries, like the U.S. Companies that do this often brag about it in their marketing, highlighting that their, say, American workers get paid well and work in much better conditions than the people from poorer countries who work for competing companies that outsource production. If these companies are right to claim that they’re doing something at least permissible, if not especially morally good, then we’d either have to accept that sweatshop employment isn’t wrongfully exploitative or else reject the nonworseness claim.

We should reject the claim of companies that don’t outsource that they’re doing something morally good and should instead think that in many cases, they’re probably doing something morally wrong. Companies have strong moral reasons to employ the global poor when they can.

“We should reject the claim of companies that don’t outsource that they’re doing something morally good.”

In the philosophical debates about the ethics of sweatshops, most people maintain that employing people in sweatshop conditions is wrong, while not employing them at all is permissible. The most common type of view in this group holds that even though companies aren’t obligated to hire any of the global poor, if they choose to do so, they become subject to a requirement to make the conditions of employment fair, which involves ensuring that the benefits of the company’s activities are fairly distributed among those who contribute, including sweatshop employees. This is supposed to explain why sweatshop wages can be wrongfully exploitative even though the company wasn’t obligated to hire the workers in the first place.

I acknowledge that we have intuitions about requirements of fairness that apply within organizations or among contributors to a common project that can make this view seem plausible. Often it can seem like we’re not obligated to be involved with a joint project with particular people at all, but that if we do choose to work with those people, there are new requirements of fairness that apply to, for example, the distribution of the benefits and burdens of the project.

The problem is that although proponents of this solution claim to maintain the view that sweatshop workers are wrongfully exploited out of a concern for those people — and for the fact that they typically have no choice but to either accept low wages, long hours and poor conditions in a sweatshop or else face worse conditions elsewhere — the moral advice that they give companies and their representatives when it comes to outsourcing is inconsistent with appropriate concern for the global poor.

Imagine if a CEO approaches a philosopher and asks whether the company should hire poor people in a poor country or much better-off people in the U.S. A philosopher who rejects the nonworseness claim is likely to say that there’s no particular moral reason to hire the poorer people and that in fact, unless the company is prepared to pay much higher than typical wages in the area for fewer hours of work, and to provide better working conditions, morally speaking the company is obligated not to outsource, even though this would be worse for the potential workers. It seems to me that a view that requires this kind of advice to a CEO is inconsistent with caring about the interests of the global poor in the right way. Because of this, it seems to me that rejecting the nonworseness claim isn’t the right way to resolve the puzzle.

“Companies have strong moral reasons to employ the global poor when they can.”

A smaller number of philosophers, mostly those who have broadly libertarian views in political philosophy and business ethics, argue that we should accept that companies that employ people in sweatshop conditions don’t do anything wrong and, in particular, aren’t guilty of wrongfully exploiting their workers. Interestingly, some of these philosophers accept that the companies exploit the workers but claim that this exploitation isn’t wrong since the workers volunteered for the work, which is better for them than not being exploited at all. If it’s morally acceptable to do nothing, then employing people in voluntary and beneficial sweatshop work should at least count as better treatment of those people.

I think the libertarians are right to emphasize that those who reject the nonworseness claim lack a plausible account of how their view could be grounded in a morally appropriate concern for the lives and interests of people like Qaifa. But while the libertarians’ own view does a bit better on this account, intuitively it still doesn’t do nearly well enough. If a moral view that implies that it’s acceptable for a company to neglect poor people but wrong to hire them at low wages, long hours and poor working conditions is objectionable because it’s incompatible with proper concern for their lives and interests, then it seems to me that a view that implies that wealthy companies can hire poor people at any combination of wages, hours and working conditions that are slightly better than their next best alternative is objectionable for the same reason.

The libertarians simply assume that it’s permissible for companies not to hire the global poor at all. But I take it that at least many of us are still inclined to think that there’s something quite objectionable about very wealthy, highly profitable companies in effect paying poor workers a fraction of a dollar per hour for a 60 or even 70-hour workweek in unpleasant and potentially dangerous conditions. We should be careful about abandoning this intuition.

“A fairly radical shift in our thinking about the ethics of employment and the appropriate role of corporations in the global economy is necessary.”

Given the problematic aspects of both kinds of views commonly defended, I think the right view is that companies that are able to are morally obligated to hire from among the global poor and to offer jobs at better wages, in better working conditions and perhaps for fewer hours than are typical of sweatshops. Why should we find this view plausible? First, the companies that I have in mind control vast resources and can have a large impact on the opportunities available to millions of badly off people around the world. As a general matter, the ability to help is an important determinant of which agents are obligated to benefit those in need. There’s no obvious reason why this shouldn’t be true in the case of wealthy corporations.

Second, choices like those faced by companies deciding where to locate production are, at least in part, choices about which among multiple groups of potential workers to benefit. Conceived of in this broadly distributive way, all of the morally relevant factors suggest that locating a site in the developed world is not the best option. Indeed, in many circumstances it would count as the worst option, morally speaking. The potential workers in developed countries are, after all, typically much better off than the potential workers in developing countries would be even after receiving the benefits that they’d obtain if they were hired. Furthermore, many philosophers have argued that we should generally prioritize those who are worse off over those who are better off.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, there are strong reasons to think that impoverished potential sweatshop workers are victims of both domestic and global structural injustices, from which wealthy corporations typically benefit. In light of this fact, it seems plausible that corporations, as beneficiaries of these injustices, ought to take steps to improve the conditions of those disadvantaged by it, at least when doing so won’t be overly costly. And since corporations typically locate production sites in poor countries because it will increase their profits, it seems clear that at least in cases in which keeping production in the developed world is a viable option, companies could accept lower than maximum profits and use the additional income to, for example, increase the wages of sweatshop workers above the locally prevailing level and improve workplace safety conditions.

This is the only kind of view that unconditionally requires that companies consider the interests of the global poor in a serious way in their business decision-making. Therefore, a fairly radical shift in our thinking about the ethics of employment and the appropriate role of corporations in the global economy is necessary. If we want to be able to plausibly claim that our thinking about these issues is consistent with a serious concern for the lives of people like Qaifa, who live in conditions such that they would accept sweatshop work if it was offered to them and be better off for it, we must, in my view, make this shift.