Thursday, August 7, 2008

Sweatshops vs Prostitution

An excellent post on Vox Nova (by Katerina Ivanova on the difficulty in finding clothing that is made sustainably) contains an interesting thread of comments by people debating the repercussions of fighting sweatshop labor.

For the record, I don't agree with arguments like "But if they close the sweatshops all those people will be out of work and forced to turn to prostitution or starve!" From a wider perspective (a Catholic perspective) both slave/sweatshop labor and prostitution are equally evil and unjust. But opposing sweatshop labor is a step towards moral good: an economic society which pays its employees a fair wage. Doing nothing, or allowing sweatshops to continue as the "lesser of two evils," only perpetuates the status quo.

Each of us as individuals are morally obligated to do what we can and taking concrete, life-changing action. Yes, companies will close their sweatshops if they are told they can no longer operate them. And then what will the company do? Will they simply stop making clothes? Maybe. Or maybe they will open an sustainable, ethical shop somewhere else. Eventually (as is ALREADY happening) companies will realize the eyes of the world are on them. Companies CAN make clothing without sweatshops, so it's false to claim that denying them the opportunity to use sweatshops will destroy the industry. If all manufacturers are unable to operate while exploiting their workers, they will be forced to employ fair labor practices.

Take the United States as an example. We had child labor, slave labor, unsafe working conditions, hazardous factories dumping deadly chemicals into waterways...you name it, we've done it (and in some cases still are.) But overall, companies who operate in America comply with fair labor practices because the public and the government demands it. This has been the progression of the fair labor movement; it is the ultimate goal -- not to force one company or one country to operate effectively, but to create a society where exploitative labor is unacceptable. The most important step towards that is awareness. Without transparency, companies can flout public mores with impunity. This is partly why I consider the media (and journalism in particular) the most powerful tool for change.

The second step rests with us, the public. We must demand that companies find ways to operate ethically. It is a tragedy that this will result in the temporary worsening of many people's living conditions. The only way to mitigate such damage is to Take the Poor With You. Boycott unethical companies by refusing to buy their products. Go to that wedding in an old dress. And with the money you would have spent, contribute to charitable organizations that assist the poor and unemployed in countries affected by the boycott.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians died during World War II to rid the world of the Nazis. Pacifists might argue that since people were dying either way, the deliberate taking of another life could not be morally justified. But the Catholic principle of just war declares that it can. We must declare just war on oppression wherever we find it, even if it means engaging in what would otherwise be considered a great evil.

I believe if the greater good is being served and society is moving towards equity, justice, freedom and sustainability, then the evils that may come as part of the change are not only justified, they are in fact moral.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

First, it's not true that from a Catholic perspective sweatshops and prostitution are equally unjust. Prostitution is intrinsically evil. Working for low wages in bad conditions is not (See Quadragesimo Anno 71-72). It is a sin to be a prostitute. It is not a sin to work in a sweatshop. This should indicate that there is a difference between the two.

Second, it's not true that fighting sweatshops is a step towards an economic society which pays its workers a fair wage. Sweatshops are a rung on the ladder of economic development. Remove that rung, and you make it harder for nations to climb out of poverty. For a fuller elaboration of this argument, I would recommend this article by Paul Krugman.

Vadim said...

"The second step rests with us, the public. We must demand that companies find ways to operate ethically."

The problem is that corporations rarely listen to the public. They barely even listen to government decrees. If there are standards set up in one country they will move their production to another with lower standards, a la a "race to the bottom."

What we need to do is use the market to demand justice. We need to create demand for specifically sweatshop-free garments. Take a look at this campaign:

http://tinyurl.com/58eaky

This is what I mean. Not so much a boycott, but a proactive way to demand that shoe companies comply with basic human rights standards. We will buy from the first shoe manufacturer that creates fair trade shoes.

The truth is that corporations respond almost solely to economic incentive, and we have to convince them that there is a profitable incentive to make fair trade products.

Tienne said...

Blackadder,

Thanks for the link; I've read the Krugman article and I'm not sure I agree with his main point. He seems to me to be saying that sweatshops are progress from an agricultural labor system and that they are necessary to create varied economic stability.

It's true that most developing countries go through a "sweatshop labor" phase. But what brings them out of it is not increased capital or prosperity. Companies only stop exploiting their workers when they are forced to, either because the government insists or their labor force revolts. So it's not a necessary step; companies can make a profit even when they are paying their workers a fair wage.

I see your point about equal unjustice between prostitution and sweatshops. You're right; it is immoral to sell your body but not to sell your labor. I would posit, however, that it is equally immoral to RUN a sweatshop or a brothel because both are dehumanizing and evil, and you are directly profiting from it.

Tienne said...

Vadim,

If there are standards set up in one country they will move their production to another with lower standards, a la a "race to the bottom."

Yep. That's exactly what we see happening with all the outsourcing. When that happens, we have to follow them and expand the standards. How about "You can't sell your products in the US if they're made by unethical business practices?" Are companies really going to lose the entire US market rather than pay a fair wage?

Great link! I'm in the market for athletic shoes and very frustrated trying to find ethical ones. At the moment I'm leaning towards New Balance for the specific reason that site mentions: they've at least addressed the issue. It's like the Organic movement. Create demand for sustainable, fair-trade, ethically conscious products and the market will supply.

But doesn't this also require that we refuse to buy from companies that DON'T adhere to fair practices? What does it mean to say "I want fair-trade coffee!" if we then go out and buy Folgers?

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Tienne says, "It's true that most developing countries go through a "sweatshop labor" phase. But what brings them out of it is not increased capital or prosperity. Companies only stop exploiting their workers when they are forced to, either because the government insists or their labor force revolts."

This has things exactly backwards. Increased prosperity leads to things like child labor or unsafe working conditions becoming rarer and rarer, and its only once those practices become rare enough that government steps in and passes laws banning the practice.

Tienne said...

Blackadder,

"Increased prosperity leads to things like child labor or unsafe working conditions becoming rarer and rarer"

That's a concidence, not a causality. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire is evidence of this. Even in a stable and prosperous society, companies were still exploiting and endangering their workers. Only once tragedy struck and the public became outraged were companies forced to consider safety above profit.

This is a smaller point, though. The fact remains that companies can operate at a profit without resorting to sweatshops. It is an uncessary step on the ladder of economic prosperity and thus it is immoral and must be opposed by any person of consience.