Definition of Sweatshop Labor Systems and Work Practice

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By common definition a sweatshop is a workplace that has at least one questionable work practice. Examples include paying workers substantially low wages, providing unhealthy and unsafe work environments, requiring uncommonly long work hours, limiting workers rights (the right to us the restroom), an oppressive environment and employment of child labor. (Hartman, Shaw, & Stevenson, 2000) Some believe that these work environments are acceptable as long as the people working there accept the conditions they are working under. For others, calling a place a sweatshop means that the working conditions are illegitimate and immoral.

Sweatshop labor systems have been in use around the world for a long time. They were often associated with garment and cigar manufacturing, laundry work, and most recently in the day laborers, who are often legal or illegal immigrants, who perform lower skilled jobs and are often paid “under the table” in cash to avoid taxation as well as needing to provide health insurance and other costs associated with hiring legitimate employees. In underdeveloped countries, sweatshops producing clothing are normally widely dispersed geographically rather than concentrated in a few areas of major cities, they often located close to other sweatshops, some of which produce toys, shoes, carpets, and athletic equipment, among other goods. Sweatshops became a socio-economic issue through the public exposure they received in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The underlying cause of sweatshops in developing nations—whether in China, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or India and Bangladesh— is intense cost-cutting done by contractors who compete among themselves for orders from larger contractors, major manufacturers, and retailers.” (Hartman, Shaw, & Stevenson, 2000)

In the United States, Corporation’s are subject to regulations and laws such as minimum wage law, labor laws, safety requirements and union organizing provisions; in some developing countries these laws are soft or do not exist at all. This allows large corporations to achieve substantial cost benefits from outsourcing to these countries. Many developing countries like India, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Honduras encourage the outsourcing of work to factories within their borders as a source of employment for their people, who otherwise would not have a means of employment. (Doh & Luthans, 2018)

Outsourcing of production facilities and labor to developing countries has been one of the important business strategies of large U.S. corporations. Despite the positive fact of creating new jobs in the developing country, the large corporations very often have been criticized for violating the rights of the workers, creating unethical working conditions, and increasing workloads while lowering wages. They have been attacked for creating a “sweatshop” environment for their employees. (Doh & Luthans, 2018) Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out that for many sweatshop workers the alternatives are much, much worse. In one famous 1993 case a U.S. senator proposed banning imports produced by children in sweatshops. In response to his proposal, a factory in Bangladesh laid off 50,000 children. According to the British charity Oxfam many of them became prostitutes. (“In Defense of ‘Sweatshops’ - Econlib,” 2019)

Even in multiple cases where companies were accused of using sweatshop labor, it was found that the jobs were normally better than average jobs in that country. In 9 of 11 countries surveyed, the average reported wage in sweat shops equaled or exceeded average incomes of other laborers in the country. In Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras, the average wage of workers in a company accused of being a sweatshop is more than twice the average income in that country. (“In Defense of ‘Sweatshops’ - Econlib,” 2019)

The war against sweatshops is not simple; there are mixed motives and unforeseen consequences. For example, unions may object to sweatshops because they are concerned about the welfare of people performing the labor, but they also need to protect their own union members’ jobs from low-wage competition, even if this results in ending the jobs of the working poor in other countries. Also, sweatshops can be thought of in both moral and economic perspectives. Morally, it is easy to say that sweatshops are unacceptable because they exploit and endanger workers. However, from an economic perspective, many argue that without them developing countries may not be able to compete with industrialized countries and achieve export growth. (Doh & Luthans, 2018)

Effective regulation has three essential components. First, the law must develop standards, second, there must be enough monitoring of compliance to detect non-compliance; and third, there must be some form of motivation or penalty to avoid non-compliance. Because sweatshops are better than any of the available alternatives, any reforms to improve the lives of workers in sweatshops should not jeopardize the jobs that they have, they would not be working there if they had an alternative. Anti-sweatshop laws could make third world workers worse off by lowering the demand for their labor (any job is better than none). Such laws could make some American workers better off as they would no longer have to compete with third world labor: U.S. consumers would be a captive market and shoulder the financial burden. Additionally, some anti sweatshop legislation is politically motivated instead of ethically motivated. (Harpur, 2010) (“In Defense of ‘Sweatshops’ - Econlib,” 2019)

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Although some congressional members and other opponents of sweatshops claim that they are trying to assist workers in undeveloped countries, their true motives are questionable when the language of some of the pieces of legislation are reviewed. Language such as, “Businesses have a right to be free from competition with companies that use sweatshop labor.” A more to the point statement would be, “U.S. union members have the right to not face competition from poor workers in undeveloped countries and by making competition from poor workers in undeveloped countries illegal we can raise the wages for union employees at the expense of the poorer people who work in sweatshops. (“In Defense of ‘Sweatshops’ - Econlib,” 2019)

Some developing countries have tried to effect change in working conditions in their countries, primarily to appease European countries and the United States. As an example, after 21 years of drafting, China introduced its first workplace safety law named the Law of the People's Republic of China on Work Safety 2002 (PRC). This law commenced in November 2002 and binds everyone engaged in production and operations within China. The law makes exclusive reference to safety, with no reference to health. China has subsequently introduced occupational safety laws for manufacturing dangerous chemicals, working in coal mines, construction and fireworks for private use. As no OSH laws have been enacted for textile and apparel manufacturing, companies in these industries are regulated by the general provisions of the Law of the People's Republic of China on Work Safety 2002 (PRC). The largest concern with Chinese OSH laws is not defining the legal duties, but the control and enforcement of those laws. Local governments are responsible for enforcing OSH laws, the number of inspectors to enforce labor laws is inadequate to perform the task. There are only around 3,000 inspectorates, which employ around 45,000 inspectors who are responsible to inspect over 3,000,000 work locations. (Harpur, 2010)

This has resulted in the quantity of labor inspectors possibly being inadequate to implement and enforce the law’s systematically across the country. Others have also argued that China does not have a comprehensive plan to enforce these laws, and that the disjointed and unsystematic approach of the inspectorates results in very poor enforcement of labor laws. One of the reasons Chinese OSH laws are not well enforced is because of the economic focus of the laws. Labor laws in China were not introduced with the commitment to protect workers. Instead, these laws were essentially put into place to satisfy European and American governments’ demands for formal OSH laws. PRC has followed a trend of regarding workers’ OSH as important, but only to enhance economic development: The law is put into place to increase supervision over work safety, thereby reducing work safety accidents, to help protect workers lives and property, and to hasten the economic development.” (Harpur, 2010)

The blending of safety and economic reasons for the law has reportedly resulted in confusion over whether economic interests or safety concerns take priority. Chinese culture places a high priority on life, but also gives priority to community harmony and community benefits over individual benefits. (Harpur, 2010) On December 10, 1948, the United Nations adopted its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “The Declaration recognizes that all humans have an inherent dignity and specific equal and inalienable rights.” These rights are based on the institution of freedom, justice, and peace. The UN stated that the rights should be guaranteed without difference of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, wealth or birth. No distinction should be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional, or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs. The inherent rights also include the right to life, liberty, and protection from slavery or servitude, torture, or degrading treatment or punishment. (Doh & Luthans, 2018)

Articles 23, 24, and 25 discuss issues that relate directly to organizations that might be considered sweatshops. They provide recognition of the fundamental human right to nondiscrimination, personal autonomy and liberty, equal pay, fair working hours and the ability to attain a suitable standard of living. All these rights were reinforced by the United Nations in its 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. (Doh & Luthans, 2018)

Another way that sweatshop change has come about is through scandal. Some argue that sweatshop scandals result in little to no impact on the corporations that use them to produce their products. This is because most people care more about cheap and affordable products than for the working conditions of those who made the products. A scandal around Russell Athletic brand has proven that it may not be as easy for a corporation to avoid the social responsibility born from its outsourcing activities as it has been in the past. One example is the case of Russel Athletics.

November 2009 became a turning point in several years of fighting between the student ant sweatshop movement and the corporate world. An unparalleled victory was won by United Students against Sweatshops (USAS) coalition against Russell Athletic, a large corporation owned by Fruit of the Loom, a Berkshire-Hathaway company. USAS tactics influenced one of the United States’ leading sportswear companies, to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras who had lost their employment when Russell Athletic closed their factory following unionization. Some question a corporation’s decision to fold to either union demands or social pressure, the bottom line will always come down to what decision is more profitable for the corporation. (Doh & Luthans, 2018)

The ethics, economics and regulation of sweatshop labor are complex questions that require a lot of thought to come to a place where we need to be. Changing laws and regulations need to be done with significant research and forethought. It is easy to make laws that are impossible to be enforced, or that make matters worse for all parties involved. Removing the only job a worker has access to does not help them economically, neither should they be forced to labor in hazardous conditions, for an unfair wage. Determination what wage is unfair in a developing nation is harder than most realize. Stagnating a developing countries economy by not allowing their work force to have the jobs or forcing the wrong wages on their work force is also undesirable to their economy.

One item not fully discussed is local or centralized government agents forcing their populace to work in sweatshops so that the government collects a profit from their work. This amounts to slavery, or indentureship which should be illegal through out the world and is morally wrong. No countries economic needs warrants it. I would prefer for the world to be a perfect place, for all economies to be sound and growing, but they are not all there yet. I would prefer to wear a good pair of well-made shoes when I go for my evening run and to not need to pay an exuberant amount of my hard-earned pay to buy them. At the same time, I do not appreciate that my shoes might have been made by child labor working in deplorable conditions for inadequate pay. As a consumer I have the right to research the companies that I purchase my products from and try to make an informed decision as to who gets my hard-earned money. After researching this topic I would like to say that I will do so every time I go to purchase something. This, however, takes some kind of effort on my, the consumers, part. Here in the United States we live in a consumer culture, we get on social media and preach about what is right and wrong, then we go buy the products made in the sweatshop because it is cheaper. Once the decision is made that I am not purchasing something made in a sweatshop, there are some other questions that I will have to answer for myself. Is it my “right” to tell the worker in the sweat shop that he cannot have a job, a person that is willing to work for the wage being provided, in the conditions being provided to feed his family, or to drag himself out of whatever situation he is in. Who doesn’t have any other way to survive, who is making above the national average for the country he is in, that I am going to take his job away from him because I am uncomfortable with it? These are questions that we will all have to answer for ourselves.

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