Tag Archives: sweatshops

Sweatshops, Welfare and Poverty

As Ben Powell says, “defending sweatshops is not about defending corporate profits, economic efficiency. It’s about the welfare of the third world workers.” I think this has some merit. Sweatshops are notoriously lambasted for exploiting individuals, and/or providing “too little.” But I think it’s much more complex than that. To start, I’d recommend watching the below video. Ben Powell, PhD (from Suffolk University), along with the Institute for Human Studies, lends some insight into this:

To lend additional insight, for sake of argument, Professor Matt Zwolinski, over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, says this:

Even if they are unfair, there is very good reason to believe that all of the exchanges described above are usually mutually beneficial.1  In other words, both parties come away from the exchange better off than they would have been without it.  This claim is supported, I think, by the rather impressive empirical data on sweatshop wages.  But even apart from the empirical evidence, there’s a fairly strong a priori argument to be made in favor of the assumption of mutual benefit.  After all, if workers didn’t expect to be made better off by working in a sweatshop – if they didn’t think it was all-things-considered their best available alternative – then why would they take the job?  And the poorer workers are, the more dramatic the impact on their overall welfare will be of even slight improvements to their material conditions.

So sweatshops are doing something to make poor workers better off.  On the other hand, I assume that most of us do nothing to make any serious improvement in the lives of people in desperate poverty.  We might give a few dollars to the Red Cross when a tsunami hits and makes the evening news, but most of don’t do anything on a regular basis that is going to have any real long-term impact on the lives of poor workers in the developing world.

I think this is a tremendous point. And yes, surely it sucks that they are making a choice between meagerness and starvation, but it’s a choice that they own. Hell, sometimes, “sweatshops are a dream.” But to ridicule the sweatshop owners isn’t going to do anything about the poverty, or the welfare of the workers.

I say keep up with the sweatshops. Let them be. I want to provide them with the choice. Meanwhile, as Kristof says, let’s “promote manufacturing” in these countries. Encourage imports and exports. Open up trade barriers. Set them free.

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