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:
- Workers in the developing world are in great need of additional help.
- 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?