Sweatshops, as many would agree, are the greatest atrocity multinational corporations commit against people of developing nations, overworking them in filthy crushed cubicles or roaring unsanitary factories where they are making cheap goods to be consumed by the population of the so-called ‘developed’ world. To see if this condemnation is valid, let us start from the definition of the sweatshop. Here is the one given by Department of Labor (DOL) in 2000: “a place of employment that violate[s] two or more federal or state labor laws governing minimum wage and overtime, child labor, industrial homework occupational safety and health, workers’ compensation or industry registration ” (Hapke 2004:2).
Thus, the sweatshop is a place where labor laws are ignored. Activists from the Resource Center for the Americas define a sweatshop as “a factory where workers are subject to extreme exploitation, including super-low wages, no benefits, filthy or dangerous working conditions, denial of their worker and human rights” (Resource Center for the Americas). While the first definition is reserved in the traditional legal style, the second is more emotional and lists all the iniquities associated with sweatshops.
Sweatshops in developing nations have been defended on the grounds that it is “the only way [these] nations can grow” and accumulate capital (Black, Myerson: 307). Protests against sweatshops often result in corporations shifting their manufacturing from these nations (Yesilevsky 2004). Surely these countries, being dirt poor, are in dire need of foreign investment and someone with funds who would put money in rebuilding their infrastructure, so hosting foreign business is often crucial to their survival. But does it really mean that multinationals taking advantage of the powerlessness of workers in less affluent nations should be given a blank card and left on their own to do business any way they want? People in nations that generated these corporations are responsible for their activities, at least for the reason that they use taxes generated by Wal-Mart, Benetton and other giants for their own benefit. Yes, unemployment leads to moral and intellectual degradation (Haft, Leff 1983:221), but workers may be artificially forced into an imposed contract. The arrangement in which sweatshop jobs become a dream for many in less privileged world violates the conditions of ‘voluntary exchange’ advocated by the famous economist Adam Smith. In this contract, one party (sweatshop owners) “has enormous economic power, and the other has none” (Black, Myerson: 306).
Jobs are scarce in poor nations, and this offers excellent opportunities for exploitation of workers. Few would deny that a nation where all the business is in the hands of foreigners may never see any significant improvement in salary levels, if a few large corporations conspire to keep wages low where in their feeling there is no real competition to recruit workforce. Developing nation just happened to arrive at the stage too late when multinational corporations through globalisation of their activities began to dictate their economic will to the rest of the world. In the meantime, around the globe, 1.2 billion people in the world live on $1 a day or less in what the UN describes as extreme poverty (Sharf 2005).
While the low salaries do have some justification such as the price levels in poor countries and comparative income levels, it is hard to find an excuse for the abominable working conditions. Sweatshops are “crowded, filthy, and rat-infested”, “located behind barbed wire fences that are monitored by armed guards” (Webster University). There is little explanation for the ban on having visitors as well as physical abuse including corporal punishment. Workers are even forbidden to use the bathroom in their working time and breaks lead to penalties. Researchers report cases when Indonesian women had to demonstrate evidence of menstruation to justify a leave (Morey, 2000). Many of these inhuman rules have little do with raising worker productivity; instead they aim to intimidate the worker, to strip the individual of human dignity and make one ready to fulfil management’s wishes.
Women that constitute the bulk of employees in garment industry that often relies on the work of sweatshops are especially vulnerable to abuse. They fall victim to sexual abuse from male managers who use their helpless position to demand sexual favors in return for some improvement of work conditions. Apart from sexual harassment, women can be forced to make abortions to retain their work. Thai women are sold to Japanese factory owners as slaves, after which they have to toil for years to repay their debt (Webster University).
It is interesting to note discrepancies between descriptions of workers’ attitudes toward their sweatshop jobs. Proponents of sweatshops say that Cambodian people line up to get those exploitative jobs and now and again the Cambodian worker will have to offer a monthly salary to the factory official as a bribe to get the coveted job (Sowell 2004). However, facts tell a different story. It is not uncommon for Cambodian workers to go on strike demanding better working conditions and proper wages. Thus, in January 1999 employees of the Malaysian factory went on strike demanding to cancel new rules reducing overtime pay to 50 cents from 80 cents and to introduce better ventilation (Richardson 1999:3). This demonstrates that sweatshops workers are not that powerless and can in fact stand up for their rights, and that they are not as exhilarated about their jobs as sweatshop advocates say.
All of the above allows one to conclude that sweatshops are a real plague of today’s world. To stop sweatshops is to deny the opportunity for corporations to violate human rights in less-developed nations. The code of corporate responsibility is necessary that will prevent companies from unfair treatment of employees (Ratner 2001). However, the real empowerment of workers will come from job creation that will create competition among employers in the labor markets. An extensive program of attracting foreign investment that will trigger job creation is the real solution, not simply the closure of sweatshops.
Black, Susan S. and Allen R. Myerson. Are Sweatshops Necessarily Evil? Issue 16.
Haft, Marilyn G., and Walli F. Leff. Time without Work: People Who Are Not Working Tell Their Stories, How They Feel, What They Do, How They Survive. South End, 1983
Hapke, Laura. Sweatshop: The History of an American Idea. Rutgers University Press, 2004
Ratner, Steven R. “Corporations and Human Rights: A Theory of Legal Responsibility.” Yale Law Journal 111.3 2001: 435+.
Resource Center of the Americas. “What is a sweatshop?” 1 October 2005 <http://www.americas.org/item_161>.
Richardson, Michael. “Jobs for Cambodians — or Sweatshops?” International Herald Tribune 12 January 1999. 4 October 2005 <http://www.iht.com/articles/1999/01/12/camboecon.t.php>.
Rosen, Ellen Israel. Making sweatshops: the globalization of the U.S. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002.
Scharff, Xanthe. “What it’s like to live on $1 a day”. The Christian Science Monitor July 6, 2005. 1 October 2005 < http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0706/p01s05-woaf.html>.
Sowell, Thomas. “Third World Sweatshops: Why Cambodian Workers Bribe for ‘Sweatshop’ Jobs”. Capitalism Magazine (January 27, 2004). 1 October 2005 <http://capmag.com/article.asp?ID=3487>.
Webster University. Women and Sweatshops. 4 October 2005 <http://www.webster.edu/~woolflm/sweatshops.html>.
Yesilevsky, Anna. “The Case against Sweatshop.” The Humanist 64 (May-June 2004): 20+.
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