February 15th, 2008  |  Published in Thinking  |  2 Comments

York ‘Thinking and Drinking’ 14 Febrary 2008 – John Halsted

The common perception of sweatshops as evil institutions, is totally wrong, and further, that sweatshops are both economically and ethically a good thing. Sweatshop labour is not ‘exploitation’ by any reasonable definition because the workers voluntarily agree to work there. As a consequence of the voluntary nature of sweatshop labour, the labour is likely to be the best deal available to the worker. The empirical evidence illustrating this point is overwhelming, and sweatshops tend to be more and offer better conditions than other alternatives. Good examples of this are maligned firms like Nike and Fruit of the Loom. I then looked at the effect of boycotting sweatshop-made products. Following from sweatshops being the best available alternative, it seems that when they are removed by consumer -pressure, the consequences for the workers are far worse than if the sweatshop were there. The only thing worse than being exploited, is not being exploited. I related this to York Student Union policy of boycotting sweatshop-made produce, and whether we as individuals and members of a union should be supporting this policy.

Some ideas suggested by people at the T & D meeting following the presentation and discussions:

“All hinges on deifnition of ‘exploitation’”

“Is undeniable that they birng jobs to those who otherwise don’t/wouldn’t have them”

“Would boycotting them force the workers into worse jobs, or make the companies increase wages/improve conditions?”

“If the extremes of promoting or boycotting sweatshops are undesirable how can effective regulations be put in place, and properly carried out, to prevent things like whipping of workiers, conditioning of children to work in sweatshops (China)?

“There is no black or white; sweatshops are inevitable – but they must be constantly supervised under clear definitions and regulations”

“The idea of an ethical product coding system, like the healthy eating traffic light system, giving each product an ‘ethically produced’ code so people know what they’re buying and can decide which product they prefer”

“When you buy clothes, you thinks of style, colour, price, but how much do you think about the ethics of what you are buying? Education is the answer”

“1. Don’t boycott them; 2. Cancel Third World Debt; 3. Reform insititions such as the World Bank and IMF, so that they really act in the countries’ interests, not their own; 4. Give more financial aid”

“Persuade businessmen and entrepeneurs to want to invest more in the Third World”

“Impose some sort of minimum wage level like we have in the UK”

“Sweatshops are outsourcing’s negative extreme. Outsourcing benefits developing countries, so sweatshops should be tolerated. The alternative would be setting minimum wages, but companies would move to foreign countries. Eventually the workers will have to fight for their own rights”

- Tom Harding, Thinking and Drinking Coordinator


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