After reading last week’s article on sweatshops, I looked into what companies UWSP purchases from. Then, I optimistically (or perhaps naïvely) did a quick Google search looking for any hits including the companies and possible sweatshops. To my surprise, I didn't receive a lot of hits on any of them; and it wasn't because the sweatshops didn't exist. The question quickly went from “who has sweatshops,” to “who DOESN'T?”
Unfortunately, after the dust settles, the reality is the clothing industry uses sweatshops, and not just a few. I really thought about it then ... I knew from history classes that sweatshops are still very prominent parts of the market in certain parts of the world (and arguably our own). It's one of those things that, as an American, I had tried to block out from my mind. It wasn't that I didn't know they existed, I just didn't want to think of myself as a supporter of such labor policies.
So—why sweatshops? I remember sitting in my freshman history class in high school learning about sweatshops—and consequently how bad they are. Our teacher gave us pieces of paper with roller skate parts printed on them. Students were expected to participate in an activity where we’d get in an assembly line, each with a task.
One person had to color the skates, another had to cut them out, another had to cut out the wheels, etc. There were about eight different tasks including gluing the roller skates together. Meanwhile, our teacher turned the lights off, closed the blinds, and proceeded to make a lot of noise. There were also a couple of students designated as foremen, who were assigned to yell at us about each and every blunder on the skates.
The activity was intended to simulate the conditions of a sweatshop; undeniably, one can’t come close to the conditions in an Oregon, Wisconsin classroom, but nonetheless it provided for a memorable experience and lesson.
Looking back, I’m not sure if we were deliberately taught that sweatshops are bad, or if it was open-ended activity for us to make our own opinions. I do remember, though, walking out of the room, shocked by the horror stories including the conditions of sweatshops, the low wages, etc. So again, I ask: why sweatshops?
Before I answer, let me preface by saying that I cannot reconcile my economic views with my moral views on this topic. I don’t support sweatshops; I just see their value in a society. It sounds ever-so contradictory, and it is, but it’s an economics thing. So the answer to “why sweatshops” is actually quite simple. Market forces.
Americans like things. It’s cheaper to make things in countries that are, from our perspective, under-developed. Labor is cheaper in countries where there aren’t fair labor laws, and the cost of living is lower. Corporate entities pocket the extra profits while still providing products at a lower price than if they’d manufactured it at home. Labor, in essence, is no different from any other commodity. Americans want to exploit the hell out of it, regardless of if it’s at the cost of others.
This is where my argument gets very sticky, and certainly not popular. Economists commonly make the argument that sweatshops are actually not bad. In fact, the Everyday Economist, Josh Hendrickson, argues that sweatshops are actually one of the first signs of positive growth in an economy. Looking back at my history classes once again, this made a lot of sense to me. In the past century, since the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and widespread use of sweatshops in America, our country has made strides in economic development.
Adam Smith argued that free people would only engage in a transaction if it benefited them. This includes transactions within the labor market. Even when conditions are not ideal, it is better off for employees of these sweatshops to work, rather than not to work. In many cases, it means the difference between having shelter and food and not. Labor standards may not be there, but employees are working, are making some money, even if minimal, and have increased access to shelter and food. And so ultimately it is better to be working in a sweatshop, than not to be working at all.
Perhaps more importantly, sweatshops increase the standard of living. As more sweat shops open because of greater efficiency overseas, more laborers will be employed, which will drive wages higher. In turn, higher wages increase accessibility to commodities.
Sweatshops are a part of our history, and likely contributed to the comfortable lives we live today. While we’d like to ease the struggles of those overseas, how can we dull their pain? Or, is it even perceived as exploitation by the locals? Either way, can we improve labor conditions while still promoting efficiency in the economy and allowing for an increased standard of living?
My intuition says no, but I want to make it work. Or maybe we owe it to them to have their own prosperous history, as we have had ours?
Elizabeth Lepinski is an Economics student and the Student Sustainability Coordinator at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.