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Sweatshops, Exploitation, and Neglect

Article by Matt Zwolinski.

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Ari Kohen responds to my recent post on sweatshops with a few lingering concerns.  Among other things, he raises important questions about whether the evils of sweatshop labor can be compensated for by increased charitable giving, and about whether we shouldn’t recognize that American companies have (the same?) obligations toward foreign workers that they do to domestic ones.

These questions are worthwhile, and I have some thoughts about how I might respond to them.  But in order to keep things manageable, I want to focus in this post on just one issue: whether sweatshops who hire workers in the developing world are morally worse than other companies that don’t.  Consider these two cases:

Domestic Labor: US-based Company A wants to maximize its profit, and will do whatever is necessary (within the law) to do so.  After surveying its various options, it decides that it can achieve greater profit by hiring domestic workers than by outsourcing its production to a sweatshop overseas.  The US workers it hires, who are already wealthy by global standards, are made slightly better off (relative to their next best alternative employment opportunities).

Outsourced Labor: US-based Company A wants to maximize its profit, and will do whatever is necessary (within the law) to do so.  After surveying its various options, it decides that it can achieve greater profit by outsourcing its production to a sweatshop overseas than by hiring domestic workers.  The sweatshop workers it hires, who are quite poor by global standards, are made significantly better off (relative to their next best alternative employment opportunities).

Even if you think that motives are more important than I do, I can’t see any plausible grounds for saying that A is acting in a morally worse way in Outsourced Labor than in Domestic Labor.  In both cases A is motivated by greed, but in Outsourced that greed motivates A to perform a series of actions that bring significant benefit to people who stand in desperate need of such benefit, whereas in Domestic greed motivates A to perform a series of actions that provide no benefit to those people.  If the problem with sweatshops is that they don’t do enough to help their workers, why aren’t non-sweatshops even more guilty?

Some people, though, Ari among them, seem to think that A’s failure in Domestic to confer any benefit at allon workers in the developing world is not wrong, but A’s failure to benefit workers in the developing worldenough in Outsourcing is.  How might one try to justify this paradoxical claim?  One suggestion that Ari seems to embrace is that A has a relationship with workers in the developing world in Outsourcing, but not in Domestic.  And relationships can, uncontroversially, generate special moral duties.  I have moral obligations to my wife and children that I do not have to strangers.  Perhaps, then, the asymmetric power relationship that exists between sweatshops and their employees gives rise to special moral obligations that other companies don’t have?

It’s a promising suggestion, and one that’s been endorsed by some smart theorists of exploitation.  See, for instance, Jeremy Snyder’s paper on “Needs Exploitation.”  But I don’t think it works.

For starters, by grounding a company’ s obligation to workers on the nature of their employment relationship, this view entails the prior to entering into such a relationship, employers have no such duties.  So, consider:

Clean Hands: US-based Company B is considering outsourcing its production to a sweatshop overseas, but realizes that if it does so, it will be morally obligated to compensate its employees at level Y.  Company B is willing to compensate its workers at level X (where X < Y), but not at Y.  And workers would be much better off in a job at which they were compensated at level X, relative to their next best employment opportunities.  But in order to avoid violating its moral duty, Company B refrains from outsourcing to the sweatshop, and instead hires domestic workers.  Its potential workers in the developing world end up taking significantly worse jobs instead.

Sweatshop: US-based Company B is considering outsourcing its production to a sweatshop overseas, but realizes that if it does so, it will be morally obligated to compensate its employees at level Y.  Company B is willing to compensate its workers at level X (where X < Y), but not at Y.  And workers would be much better off in a job at which they were compensated at level X, relative to their next best employment opportunities.  Company B disregards its moral obligation to compensate at level Y, and instead hires overseas workers and compensates them at level X.

On the view Kohen and Snyder seem to endorse, Company B does nothing wrong in Clean Hands, even though it avoids forming a employment relationship with workers in the developing world precisely in order to get out of discharging the moral obligations that such a relationship would generate.  As a result, both Company B and its potential workers overseas are made worse off than they are in Sweatshop.  And yet, the theory under consideration suggests that A’s actions in Clean Hands are morally superior.  This, I think, is deeply implausible.

Moreover, even if we grant that special relationships can generate special moral obligations, and that something like this happens in the sweatshop case, it is implausible to hold that these obligations are non-waivable.  But something like non-waivability seems to be precisely what the argument requires.  Otherwise, in Clean Hands, B could make the following proposal to its workers: “Look, I know that if I hire you I will have a moral obligation to compensate you at level Y.  But I’m not willing to do that.  So I’ll hire you, but only on the condition that you agree to waive your right to compensation at level Y and accept compensation at level X instead.”  People have rights to a lot of things – free association, free speech, freedom of movement – that they (at least partially) waive as a condition of employment all the time.  So even if workers really do have a right to a certain level of compensation from their employers, why should this right be any different?

Incidentally, it’s worth noting that many of these same moral issues are at stake in questions about the ethics of clinical research, especially on vulnerable populations.  Usually, participation in such research confers some not-insubstantial benefits on subjects (otherwise, why would they participate?).  But medical ethicists often argue that researchers have a moral obligation to provide even greater benefits – like, for instance, free or discounted access to whatever drugs are developed as a result of the research.  But this position raises two difficulties, analogous to two difficulties in the sweatshop debate: (1) why should researchers who are doingsomething to benefit vulnerable populations have an obligation to do more to benefit them, when those who have conferred no benefit do not? (2) why should researchers have an obligation to benefit segments of the population upon whom they have already conferred benefit rather than on other segments of the population who they have not benefited at all, and who might stand in greater objective need of such benefit?  Alan Wertheimer, with whose views I am fairly sympathetic, has a nuanced and fascinating treatment of these and related issues in his Rethinking the Ethics of Clinical Research: Widening the Lens.  A more diverse set of treatments can be found in the collection Exploitation and Developing Countries: The Ethics of Clinical Research, edited by Jennifer Hawkins.

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1 reply »

  1. Food for thought. For me though, it’s not so much the exploitation angle (supposedly) but the fact that it will be the domestic workers who will lose.

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