Sophisticated critics of sweatshop labor recognize that sweatshop jobs make workers better off, but argue that sweatshops should do more to improve the lives of workers – that they should make them even better off by paying higher wages, or providing better working conditions.

In a thoughtful post at Running Chicken, Ari Kohen raises precisely this objection to my recent post on sweatshops.  Sweatshop jobs, he notes, are a boon to workers in the developing world only because those workers are desperate.  But why should corporations take advantage of that desperation for their own profit?  Kohen says that he’d be willing to pay more for ethically produced goods.  And if companies won’t produce ethically on their own initiative, we should use legal regulation to compel them to do so.  My opposition to such regulation suggests to Kohen that I’m a libertarian first, and a bleeding heart only when it doesn’t interfere with my prior and overriding commitment to libertarianism.

Jeff Miller responds to Ari with what I think is an important part of the correct answer: if Ari wants to pay more to help poor workers abroad, then what’s stopping him from doing so?  He doesn’t need to wait for sweatshops to get their act together.  He is free to give as much of his money as he wants to charities that help the global poor.

Miller’s response sounds glib, but it makes an important point.  Why do people think that sweatshops should do more to help workers in the developing world, especially since (as I’ve noted elsewhere on this blog) they already do more than most of us do to help?  Or, more precisely (since we can all grant that it would be good for sweatshops to do more to help, if they could do so without producing counterbalancing unintended negative consequences) why do people think that sweatshops have an obligation to do more, perhaps one that should be legally enforced?  I suspect there are two main reasons at work:

  1. Workers in the developing world are in great need of additional help.
  2. Sweatshops are well-positioned to provide that help.

But these reasons alone cannot justify a special obligation on the part of sweatshops to provide more help in the form of higher wages, better working conditions, etc.  Obviously, there is nothing in (1) that would generate such a special obligation.  If great need of assistance generates a normative claim on others to provide that assistance, then, ceteris paribus, it would seem to provide that reason for everyone.  And while (2) might look like it provides a reason that applies only (or especially) to sweatshops, this appearance is deceiving.  First, (2) overestimates the extent to which sweatshops can help: competitive pressures make it harder than you might think to help workers by compensating them at above the market rate.  Second, (2) underestimates the extent to which the rest of us can help.  In the olden days, ability to help might have been closely tied with physical proximity.  But not anymore.  Today all it takes to help is a few clicks, starting with this one.

So (1) and (2) by themselves can’t justify a special obligation on the part of sweatshops to do more.  If sweatshops should do more to help the working poor, it is because the poor need help and sweatshops are able to provide it.  But since all of us are able to provide help, the obligation to provide it is one that falls on all of us – not just sweatshops.  Indeed, to the extent that sweatshops are already providing help and we are not, we are further away from meeting our obligations than they are.  Sure, sweatshops aren’t helping workers out of a sense of altruism.  But is that really what matters?  If you put yourself in the perspective of one of the world’s poor, who are you more grateful for: a sweatshop that provides you with a (relatively) well-paying job in order to maximize its own profit, or an American company that acts with the purest of intentions,  and so refrains from outsourcing overseas at all?

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  • Student

    Sophisticated critics of academic labor recognize that academic jobs make workers better off, but argue that universities should do more to improve the lives of professors– that they should make them even better off by paying higher wages, or providing better working conditions.

     Academic jobs are a boon to workers in the developed world only because those workers are desperate from the arbitrary perspective of a hypothetical figure much, much wealthier than they.  But why should universities take advantage of that desperation for their own profit?  Kohen says that he’d be willing to pay more for ethically produced goods.  And if universities won’t produce ethically on their own initiative, we should use legal regulation to compel them to do so.  My opposition to such regulation suggests to Kohen that I’m a libertarian first, and a bleeding heart only when it doesn’t interfere with my prior and overriding commitment to libertarianism.

    In other words, if rich westerners didn’t exist, there would be nothing morally wrong with sweatshops, just like as long as super rich aliens don’t exist, there will be nothing morally wrong with western work and pay conditions. Sweatshop is a term rich people use to criticize where poor people work.

    Aside from the ridiculousness of rich westerners attempting to impose their standards on poorer people, the laws of economics dictate that legally compelling sweatshops to be charitable to their workers would be a disaster for their workers.

    This is really, really simple.

    What is the competitive advantage of sweatshop workers? Is it that they’re smart, strong, and well-trained? No. Those are our advantages. They have one advantage: they are cheap as dirt. Ari Kohen proposes to destroy that advantage. He proposes doing this in two ways:

    1. Consumers would be willing to pay more for “ethically” (pleasing to OUR standards, not theirs) produced goods. But corporations know this. Insofar as it is profitable to do this, they already are. Asking them do go beyond this is asking them to be charitable, which they obviously will not do, being profit-seeking. Even if they wanted to, they can’t afford charity. That’s how the market is.

    2. Legal compulsion. Ok, let’s do this. Suppose you pass a law forcing sweatshops to pay workers more. Ok, they hire fewer workers. Now you have unemployment. So you pass a law forcing them to hire the same amount of workers as before. Ok, they scale back production to where they only need fewer employees. Now you have unemployment and lower production. So you pass a law forcing them to scale back up. Ok, now operating isn’t profitable and the sweatshops leave. Now you have mass unemployment and no production. So you pass a law subsidizing the sweatshops. Ok, they come back and hire people. Except now you have higher taxes, higher prices, and a less competitive economy. Now you also have political cronyism and corporatism. Congratulations, you’ve destroyed the economic progress the workers were making.

  • Matthew Belcher

    Perhaps people believe that employers have a stronger obligation to the welfare of their employees than between any two unassociated people.

  • I think it’s all very simple: people don’t want to help with anything (in any form) unless other people are also helping. Just psychology. People don’t like making a sacrifice unless they see others also doing it, else they feel like chumps. It’s one of those commons paradoxes.

  • “…why do people think that sweatshops have an obligation to do more, perhaps one that should be legally enforced?”

    Because we in the more developed nations have demonstrated a preference for better working conditions, as is evidenced by labour laws that make sweatshops untenable here.  It is hypocrisy for us to prefer one standard of workers’ rights here then effectively circumvent them by allowing another standard for Hondurans.

    “He is free to give as much of his money as he wants to charities that help the global poor.”

    Maybe he gives generously.  You’re assuming rational consumers and perfect information.  Consumers see a choice a $14 t-shirt and a $15 t-shirt, not a choice between a $14 shirt and a $15 shirt that reduces child labour and forced pregnancy testing.  Even if you tell them, I doubt they grasp the good done by that extra dollar.

    Once the $15 shirt company has moved production from the 2nd world to the 3rd world to remain competitive, consumers aren’t going to realize that it is the poor conditions in the 3rd world that are saving them a dollar on their t-shirts and adjust their charitable donations accordingly.  We’re not rational and we don’t have perfect information.

    All that said, and despite the fact that I am an extreme liberal nutcase, I find it conceivable that the usual attempts to fix sweatshops may be in vain.  The best solution to poverty is probably simple redistribution.  Also, despite the fact that I am an extreme liberal nutcase, I am rational enough to realize that adopting a policy of giving more cash to poor wretches is politically impossible.  That is why liberals are forced to defend things like the minimum wage and other regulation – these things are politically possible.

    I must say after following BHL from the start, I am disappointed in the content.  Rather than promoting liberal benefits of libertarianism, or effective economic policies that bleeding-hearts should support (like a negative income tax), it seems like the posts have been a steady stream of defending libertarianism from liberal criticism. Which is to say, no different than any other popular libertarian blog.

    • Student

      I certainly agree with the criticism of BHL. It doesn’t seem to be significantly different from other libertarian blogs, maybe because social justice ultimately means little more than “nice outcomes” and libertarians have always claimed that libertarianism leads to nice outcomes, so there is no real niche to fill. And where it is different, it is different because it advances poor tangential arguments about morality and responsibility like the above one rather than addressing the real issues with effective arguments.

    • Well, I’m sorry you’re disappointed. But if that’s your impression, I wonder how closely you’ve really been following this blog. Aaron made a similar complaint a short while ago on another thread. I responded to him here ( with a list of three posts that were clearly challenging libertarian orthodoxy, not defending it. Just for the sake of variety, here’s three more:

      But, look, the title of this blog is “Bleeding Heart Libertarians.” And the people who blog here are…libertarians. So why, then, would you be at all surprised to see us defending libertarianism here?

      • Anonymous

        Matt, you fail to mention another, important, reason you spend more time defending libertarianism than critiquing elements of if for internal improvement: the non-libertarians never for the sake of argument accept the underlying logic and then discuss fine points — they reject the approach from the get-go and most (meaning I think there are some here the do “get it” and have significant insights to offer) struggle understanding the core much less what some of the fine points are.

    • Jeff, you said, “Because we in the more developed nations have demonstrated a preference for better working conditions, as is evidenced by labour laws that make sweatshops untenable here.”

      Just FYI, left-libertarians like Kevin Carson have argued for some time now that government intervention has done much more to restrict the power of organized labor than anything else.

      You also said that the public can’t make good decisions about some instances of charitable giving because they lack the ability to make rational choices and are uninformed of the facts.

      That may be so, but wouldn’t that also be the case with members of the voting public, the people responsible in theory for directing the actions of the government?

      Second, wouldn’t you think that the government’s aid, which is acquired through the threat of force, would do less good dollar-for-dollar because it does not have to compete with other charities for those funds?

      I would like to concur with your comment that people do not have perfect information, but that is precisely why the discovery process of markets is preferable to the stagnation of politics (because people can then spot untapped profit opportunities, like appealing to the secondary consequences of reducing child labor by buying the more expensive shirt).

  • Student

    You linked to oxfam as a way to help people. I find that disturbing.

    Charity of that kind (as opposed to, say,  helping a neighbor rebuild his house after a storm) is a market. Like all markets, it obeys the demands of those with the money. Who has the money, the rich people donating to charity or the poor people receiving the charity? Obviously, the rich donors. Why do the rich buy charity? Obviously not to improve their own life materially. Yet the idea that they do so out of genuine altruism is so absurd and frankly contrary to facts about human biology and cognition that anyone who wishes to claim this must provide extraordinary evidence.

    No, the most reasonable theory is that donors donate out of a desire to:

    1. Feel good about themselves. That lovely warm glow inside.

    2. Signal to others how nice they are. This explains all the t-shirts, wristbands, etc. It also explains why people who do visible charity work are more sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex.

    So what will the charity market provide? The rigid laws of economics ensures that charity will provide:

    1. Rich donors feeling good about themselves.

    2. Rich donors signalling to other rich people how nice and sexy they are.

    Note that “helping poor people” does not show up there. If it happens, it must be entirely incidental. Now it could be that if the people in genuine need are close enough to the rich people, charity will actually help them, or else the rich will not get to feel good and have sex (this is how helping your neighbor works). But if the poor people are far away–say, in Africa or southeast Asia–charity will only need to provide the rich with pictures of smiling colored people and a half-finished school building to accomplish its goals. Actually helping poor people, if it even happens, is entirely coincidental.

    This isn’t to say that oxfam and similar organizations don’t want to help poor people, or that they don’t try to do so. It’s to say that the market for charity does not select for that action, unlike how the laws of economics ensure that, for example, the market for food will provide food.

    This also means that sweatshops will help poor people much more than charity. So if you really want to help poor people (which you don’t, you want to feel good and have sex, which is fine but it needs to be said; progress can’t be made until people stop lying to THEMSELVES), you should agitate to remove barriers to investment and business creation in poor regions, whether by foreigners or locals.

    • Student – have you done any research into the effectiveness of charities in general, or OXFAM in particular?  Or is your dismissal of chariable giving purely a priori?

      • Student

        A fair amount of research. I came up with the a priori stuff after I realized that popular charities are often terrible and at the very least severely inefficient.

        Charity really is a terrible way to help the poor. Sometimes it’s harmful. Sometimes it doesn’t do much. And sometimes it does good, but not at all cost-effectively. Which isn’t surprising, given the economic logic I presented above.

        • Anonymous

          I work for a humanitarian organization — not Oxfam, but a peer agency to them.  For all I know, Student is perfectly correct on why people give money — I’m not on the fundraising side of the shop. And I frankly don’t care why individuals contribute, I imagine it makes them feel good as that’s how I feel when I give. I’m on the programming side, and Student leaves this side of the equation out. We write proposals discussing how we will work with communities in the developing world to improve their living conditions: improved access to education, or improved nutritional status for children under five, or improved water, sanitation or hygiene conditions, or increased income for smallholder farmers due to increased productivity and access to markets. We set specific targets that we need to report against. It doesn’t always work out — the countries and communities we work with are complex, and we’re learning all the time how to best achieve impact. But we have very good reasons to set ambitious yet practical targets and then reach them: aside from our genuine desire to do a good job, for reasons of both idealism and professional pride, we can report those results to our donors and are more likely to get more funding. The groups who leave half-built schools around the world: they don’t last long. And the donor community (USAID and Gates and the EC, etc) are asking for more and more stringent monitoring and evaluation of programs overseas, and demonstrations not only of output (school was completed) but also impact (children are actually attending that school and their academic performance is improving). As for why George Clooney gets involved: hey, I don’t know why but I’ll take it. A friend of mine ran into him once in Sudan, which gave her a good story to dine out on.

          By the way, seeing this blog is about sweatshops, I’ll mention that I’ve been in factories overseas that I would imagine would count as sweatshops.  The jobs were notably superior to the alternates: subsistence agriculture, casual manual labor, in the worst cases begging or sex work. So I have no objections to these particular economic options — which can come as a surprise to Western friends who can sometimes assume that someone in my field is against them. But hey, I’m a results driven person.

      • Anonymous

        Does Oxfam actually have any programs to help workers in Chinese factories? Don’t they generally focus on people who are actually starving? Also, how free are they to act, as a foreign NGO, in the People’s Republic of China? I think the whole process of helping workers in the third world might be simplified with better conditions and pay for workers. Charity generally ameliorates, rather than solves, problems.

  • Student

    And think of what it would do to the human capital and industry in, say, Thailand, if their workers were supported by Western charity rather than Western selfishness.

  • “Kohen says that he’d be willing to pay more for ethically produced goods.”

    That’s one. And one person doesn’t really make a market. But, more importantly, for this sort of thing to work, I suspect that Kohen, and a lot of other people are going to have to be willing to do without “unethically produced goods.” That is to say, in order to really drive people to change, they’re going to have to be willing and able to close down part of the market for alternatives, and then find a way to make sure that they aren’t scammed by the low-lives who will invariably attempt to produce goods in sweatshop conditions, sell them as ethically produced and pocket the difference. And that really takes a number of people, so there’s a recruiting challenge there.

    “Miller’s response sounds glib, but it makes an important point.”

    That’s because it is glib. For most of us, donating every penny that we had to Oxfam and reducing ourselves to abject poverty a) wouldn’t make a difference, b) would leave us even worse off then the people we were trying to help and c) wouldn’t bring the respect of people like Miller in any event.

    The point here isn’t “the poor need more money,” such that simply giving them all of mine would help. The point is that “the greater social and economic structures we live in contribute to poverty, and changing that may help.” It may not actually be true, but I think that it’s worth engaging with, and what I have always felt were snide admonitions to “give what you have to the poor” don’t engage with it.

    • Anonymous

      Aaron, how about “we should give to the poor and encourage others to do the same”? Not FORCE others to do the same, but ENCOURAGE others to do the same. Not MUST give to the poor, but SHOULD give to the poor. That, to me, is the essence of the true bleeding heart libertarian. The bleeding heart should not detract from the libertarian. They should go hand in hand. The bleeding heart libertarian should advocate leading by example, not by coercion.

    • Aaron: it’s true that one person giving more money to aid agencies like Oxfam “wouldn’t make a difference” in the overall level of poverty in the world – at least not a significant one.   But isn’t that true of one sweatshop changing its policies too?  And is that really the correct standard?  One person giving more can make a difference – a big one – in how some particular people’s lives go.  You can’t end the problem of poverty in general, but you can make life a lot better for some truly desperate people.  Why isn’t that enough?

      • Well, if Ari Kohen had suggested that one sweatshop changing its policies would be of meaningful help in eliminating world poverty, I’d say that he was being glib, too.

        And I guess that’s the point – there’s a difference between trying to change the world and trying to change a few lives, so it really depends on the stated goal. If the point is to try to really make a dent in world poverty, then going halfsies with some poor person somewhere isn’t likely to make any progress towards that, as laudable as it may be. On the other hand, if the goal is to significantly impact the lives of one family, handing out a million dollars to a slate of global charities is unlikely to accomplish that – even though it too is a laudable action.

        So I guess that I would say that it’s important to not conflate taking a laudable action with making progress towards a different, but just as laudable, goal.

  • jeffmiller

    To clarify my admittedly glib point, I don’t actually think that Ari can do much good by donating the surplus money he would be willing to pay for his iPhone to a global charity.  I think that any successful effort to alleviate extreme poverty in other countries will have to involve a change in either the mentality or the management of the governing regime.  Ari isn’t going to change the government of China.  I don’t think we should go to war with China.  The best thing any of us can do for the people in China is to continue to buy their goods.  The best thing we can do collectively is convince their leadership and their people that a freer society is a more prosperous, happier one; we can only convince them of this by example.

    If Apple could sell iPhones at a higher price without affecting its demand, it most certainly would.  Raising the price of the iPhone may let Apple pay more to workers, but it will probably also mean that it will need fewer workers.  Those workers will surely be worse off than they are now.  

    There is a tendency in America to look at sweatshop workers overseas and notice only how far away they are from our standard of living, and not how far they’ve come from their own.  A better world wouldn’t have fewer sweatshops in China; it would have more sweatshops in North Korea.

    • The best thing any of us can do for the people in China is to continue to buy their goods.

      Only in an immediate sense, I think, because you could just as easily say that the best thing we could do is refuse to buy their goods until their conditions are better. This imposes an immediate hardship on the people that we’re trying to help, but if it pays off, they may benefit more than they would have from a more incremental approach. Lacking counterfactuals, we don’t know, but remember things like the bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement. It was an immediate hardship, but it now credited with bringing about change more quickly than acquiescence and asking had done. As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

  • All very interesting. I would like to make two claims.
    First, I find distasteful and think it wrong to say that corporations that are
    hiring people in sweatshops because they are the cheapest labor around are,
    because this benefits the poor, thereby partially discharging any obligation
    they might have towards the poor. This activity on the part of corporations, I
    think it safe to assume, is motivated purely by economic self-interest on the
    part of the corporation. It involves no self-sacrifice and if it did start
    requiring self-sacrifice, they would presumably stop doing it. Suppose I charge
    a drowning person a large amount of money to throw them a life preserver and I
    do this entirely out of self-interest, I would not do it if I thought it not
    best for my interests, and I take advantage of the drowning person’s poor
    bargaining position to drive up the price. Then I claim that I have discharged
    my duty to perform some charity work because I did in fact benefit this person (they
    would have died without the exchange) when, let us suppose for the sake of
    argument, I was not enforcibly required to do so. That would be misleading and
    distasteful.  I would think it better to
    say that one only discharges any duty one might have (let’s say it is not an
    enforcible duty) to the poor if sacrifices one’s own interests in doing so or
    at least was prepared to so sacrifice should the non-sacrificial way of
    benefitting the poor have changed and required sacrifice. People relentlessly
    pursuing only their own interests who happen to thereby benefit others are not
    thereby satisfying any duty they have to aid the worst off.


    Second, while I do think you ask an important and reasonable
    question about the source of the special obligation on the part of the
    corporation that is doing business with the very poor, I think there are
    avenues of possible reply worth exploring. The people who chafe at sweatshop
    labor and buying good from products so produced yet do not so chafe at failing
    to provide direct aid to the poor must be thinking something like this: it is
    often permissible to simply leave people alone (at least if one is not the
    cause of their suffering) even if one could cause there to be more goodness in
    the world by not allowing them to suffer but instead aiding them. But, if one
    decides to voluntarily exchange with them, one must do so on terms that do not
    exploit their poor bargaining position. I would myself disagree with this line
    of thought but I assume it is what the people you find yourself disagreeing
    with here must have in mind.

    • Thanks for this very interesting comment, David. I’m going to respond to it with a new blog post, rather than in the comments thread.

      That post doesn’t actually address the example in your first paragraph. But that’s because I agree with your point there. I think the rescuer is acting in a way that is wrongfully exploitative there, but think there are some important disanalogies between this kind of case and standard cases of sweatshop labor. Justifying that claim, though, might take yet another separate blog post of its own.
      I think your second point is right too – especially the part where you say that you disagree with that line of thought. 🙂

      • Sorry I missed this reply until just now. I would not have pressed the example again had I read this earlier. 

  • Student

    And at best, it only alleviates symptoms of the real problems.

    • That doesn’t sound right to me. If a charity can give someone who’s hungry food, or build a home for a family who needs it or a well for a community that needs clean drinking water, how is that not solving a “real problem”? Sure, there might be underlying structural issues that need addressed too. But people’s pressing need isn’t any less real, or important, merely because it has an underlying structural cause.
      As for the ineffectiveness of charities, there are websites out there like Charity Navigator, that anybody can use to assess the effectiveness of various charities. And Oxfam scores pretty darn well on most measures.

  • berserkrl

    I think the reason that sweatshops are obligated to do more in a way that third parties aren’t is that poor working conditions etc. are a way that sweatshops are treating their employees. 

    Now it may seem paradoxical that those who are benefiting them slightly owe them more than people who aren’t benefiting them at all, but imagine the following case.  I come across a starving person in the desert and I hire them to follow me around as my personal servant, to grovel before me and lick my shoes, to bring me the morning newspaper in their teeth on all fours, etc., in exchange for a tiny morsel or two of food each day.  

    Now I’m clearly doing more to benefit the person than anyone else is; yet it seems plausible to say that I’m blameworthy for treating them this way, to a greater extent than others are blameworthy for not helping them at all.  And it’s not just that I’m in a better posiiton to help; it’s that I’m exploiting their vulnerability in a way that people who’d just let the starve aren’t.

    • Thanks, Rob. I agree with your intuition about this case, and with your analysis of it. But I think the sweatshops case is disanalogous in some important ways. Probably worth explaining in a separate post though, rather than in the comments.

  • Pingback: Helping the Poor: Sacrifice, Intentions, and Outcomes | Bleeding Heart Libertarians()

  • Anonymous

    I agree with your well-reasoned post. I can think of two quite distinct reasons why it would be morally wrong to force corporations to sacrifice profits to assist their third world employees, one deontological (my favorite) and a consequentialist alternative.

    1. People have a right to freely associate to pursue common objectives, provided they do so in a way that does not violate the rights of others. Shareholders in multi-national corporations have done so in pursuit of profits. It would be wrong for the state to coerce them to pursue other objectives, since third world employees do not have a right to above-market wages.

    2. People invest in large, international corporations to achieve financial returns. If you reduce the returns available to investors by forcing such companies to pay above-market rate wages, people will invest in corporations not facing this mandate, or in other asset classes. There will thus be fewer multi-national corporations in a position to establish sweatshops, hurting the very people you are trying to help.

    A point related to #2 is that it is impossible to draw a principled line between aiding the third world poor and other noble objectives, i.e. helping starving third world non-employees, curing cancer, saving the environment, providing free medical care to those w/o it here, etc. So the potential obligations of large corporations is limitless on this logic.

  • Aaron Boczkowski

    Aren’t you leaving out a lot of factors here?  What about the roll of eminent domain in setting up the sweatshops?  I assume you are against government taking someone’s land.  Also, what about “trade agreements” that are passed by the governments of countries (many of which are not democratic) that are detrimental to the citizens of poorer countries?  And, World Bank loans that do more harm than good?  You can’t just say sweatshops are good without looking at the entire system that allows them to exist.     

  • perhaps you could ground the duty of sweatshops to do more in the idea of exploitation.  I’m not saying it is obvious that sweatshops do exploit workers.

    there are paradigm cases of exploitation. e.g. Jim will save someone form a burning building on the condition that they have sex with him.  the exchange is mutually beneficial (let’s say).  whilst we should still not coercively stop jim from doing what he’s doing because then the woman would die, it still might be the case that he has a special obligation.  he should remove his conditions on saving the woman.

    if sweatshop cases are sufficiently like this, there might be a case for a special obligation on the part of corporations.  

    aside from that, i agree that they are overwhelmingly good for the poor and the pro side shoudl be heard much more.

    • “if sweatshop cases are sufficiently like this, there might be a case for a special obligation on the part of corporations.”
      John, that’s my mantra, assuming you’re talking about U.S. corporations.  It’s one thing for a common person to neglect a duty to rescue someone from a burning building, but quite another for a fully equipped fireman to neglect.

  • Anonymous

    I would recommend all those interested familiarize themselves with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a New York City sweatshop that burned 100 years ago and caused the deaths of over 140 people, mostly immigrant women in their teens and twenties.  Some of the issues with the fire were related to the generally poor fire safety of the era, but one issue that added to the death toll was doors that were padlocked to prevent employee theft.  When the foreman with the key fled the building, many were trapped and wound up leaping to their deaths. 

    One could question the ability of a teenage immigrant to assess the fire safety of any workplace, especially since doors could be open one day and padlocked the next. 

    One irony of the fire is that unlike today’s sweatshops, the owners were actually at the business with their families on the day of the fire.  They were tried for manslaughter but found not guilty, but were forced to pay a cash settlement of $75 per fatality, an amount that was more than covered by their insurance.  Later one of the owners was fined $20 for again padlocking an exit to a new business.

    If the only concern of a business/sweatshop is “shareholder value”, and the locale of the business is in a place where the redress for injury or death is only nominal, do libertarians recommend skimping on fire safety, fire drills, etc. because of profit reasons?  Presuming there is no arson, and arson was never suspected in Triangle, insurance would have no concern, since employees are not a capital loss beyond the nominal damage.

  • Jim

    If one wanted to run GM as a charity to benefit workers then it should move all its jobs to the poorest countries where they are most needed. 

  • Henry Daveed

    There is no bleeding heart in this argument.  If there was, he would be talking about the liberty of the workers in sweatshops to, say, complain if they are being abused.  

    Of course, for people suffering in poverty some money is better than no money.  I’m sure if many of the poor were offered an opportunity to sign up for a life of slavery they would, especially if it would help their family.  And then there families would be better off, and I suppose bleeding heart libertarians might argue that this form of “voluntary” slavery is a good thing.

    In fact, if you read the arguments in favor of slavery prior to the civil war a lot of them sound very much like pro-sweatshop arguments — those poor folks are better off with slavery than without it.  

    The bottom line is that the people who work in sweatshops should have the same human rights we enjoy, such as  a safe work environment, a living wage,  protection from abuse, and more. 

     The truth is in most cases they do not and this is a very sad truth that we should fight to correct — not make apologies for. 

    • “In fact, if you read the arguments in favor of slavery prior to the civil war a lot of them sound very much like pro-sweatshop arguments — those poor folks are better off with slavery than without it.”
      Yes, that’s why we can’t look at the sweatshop labor issue strictly from an economic viewpoint, and in fact, many slaves were worse off directly after the Civil War.  However, in the decades that followed, many unique historically-unprecedented legal arguments about the employer/employee relationship were made that account for many of the worker rights we now take for granted in the U.S. (and which employers try to avoid whenever possible).  

  • Anonymous

    I’ve worked in the humanitarian field for the past decade or so, and in my time overseas have been in a few factories I would imagine would count as sweatshops. Generally I’ve gone because we’re working in the same communities and when doing site visits I’ll say to local leaders, mind if we go in the factory for a moment? We’ll go in, I’ll walk around, have a chat with the manager or foreman. All part of understanding the local economy so that we can do our programs most effectively.

    After reading the comments above, there is a point I want to raise. I realize that people are posing exaggerated scenarios to make their philosophical arguments most clear. But the scenarios commenters are discussing consist of slavery, or people having to lick someone’s shoes for a daily mouthful of bread. So I just want to point out that workers overseas (where I’ve been anyway) have a CHOICE. And they still have their own standards of dignity. Somebody asks you to carry a newspaper in your teeth: you’re going to go back to subsistence agriculture which is hard work but at least does not involve that level of humiliation. And the boot-licking scenario has no economic advantage for the factory owner at all — and aren’t sweatshops about economic advantage?

    Look, I’m all for fair working conditions, and I know that there are some egregious examples out there (the very fact I’m allowed to enter may be an indication I’m not seeing the worst of the worst). But people shouldn’t get carried away. These factories are set up to cheaply and efficiently manufacture products. The foremen/ women usually come from the same communities (which means that the communities themselves have some ways of keeping them in line, via religious leaders etc).  Competition is going to improve conditions as well — the factory that pays a bit better, or that is not managed by Simon Legree, is going to get the best workers. They are not going to have the same protections as the West has — but that is true of every element of their lives. And in terms of income — what you have to look at is not the flat number, but rather purchasing power. If you suddenly started paying all the factory workers, say, ten dollars a day (a fortune in almost every community I’ve ever worked in) then you’d upend the entire economy, and doctors and teachers would all be trying to get in the door for a factory job. You need fair pay in keeping with local labor norms and to allow you to pay for your priorities at the local market prices.

    • Henry Daveed

      I think you are remarkably uninformed about the actual conditions and rights of workers in sweatshops in developing countries.   By definition a sweatshop is a factory that doesn’t follow labor laws.  I encourage you to do a little research on sweatshop conditions and discover just what types of rights these workers have.

  • Damien S.

    Accidentally posted to the older sweatshop thread, on sweatshop types.

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