Sweatshops provoke more than a moral outcry

ABy Diana Fu

are sweatshops the symbol of Uncle Sam’s exploitative fingers under the disguise of globalization? Or are they the saviors of the downtrodden around the world? Ever since the U.S. economy globalized, the debate over cheap labor continues to make some seethe with anger while others scoff contemptuously at what they see as a senseless moral outcry. The aftermath of recent crackdowns on several big-shot retailers for illegal labor practices, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, Gap, J.C. Penney, Lane Bryant, The Limited and 19 other companies, warrants another look at the cheap labor debate in the 21st century.

Historically, the term “sweatshop” was most literally used to describe landlords who “sweated” their low-waged immigrant workers to collapse. Today, the term “sweatshops” connotes two starkly contrasting images for two groups of people. For the human rights activists and other anti-cheap labor groups, the term is synonymous with immoral exploitation of the less fortunate in third-world countries. For a large number of protagonists, however, cheap labor is but a part of the capitalist machine that perpetuates the market economy. In other words, if people are willing to work for eight cents an hour instead of starve, then why not? Here, the two sides butt heads and duke it out. But one piece of the anti-cheap labor argument that goes beyond the immorality of sweatshops seems to be left out: It is imperative for the U.S. government to regulate cheap labor because sweatshops go against the very grain of democratic values. They are also inconsistent with the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a decreement that the United States fully supports.

In every political science class discussion about cheap labor, the room quickly divides into two sides: those “softies” stung by the immorality of sweatshops and the “hard-backed capitalists” who praise the benefits of cheap labor for both sides. The latter group is representative of a good portion of the general population and presents some interesting arguments. Among the most prominent is the freedom of choice. Those against government intervention in corporate labor practices abroad insist that that third-world laborers have a choice when it comes to accepting low-wage jobs in gruesome conditions. After all, cheap labor is not slavery; the workers have the freedom to leave whenever they want. Besides, low wages are better than no wages. Following this logic, the large corporations are actually doing a service to the poor around the world by providing employment. On the surface, there seems to be nothing more legitimate and democratic than this. However, there are two things fundamentally wrong with this logic.

First, a good portion of the workforce is children. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 work for a living globally. In these 250 million cases, the freedom of choice argument becomes futile since obviously, children as young as five are not reasonable decision-makers. If, in most states in the United States, we don’t even trust adolescents under the age of 21 to be mature decision-makers when it comes to alcohol, how can it be argued that five-, six- or seven-year-olds elsewhere in the world are “free” to choose to work in a factory? Second, even in the case of adult workers who are fully

capable of making employment decisions, we often fail to ask what it is they are choosing between. It is crucial to keep in mind when arguing “they’ve got a choice” that it’s not a choice between working at Mervyn’s as a sales clerk for $7 an hour or staying home with the kids. For most of these laborers, it is a choice of eight cents per hour, 15 hours per day or their children starving.

Here, most protagonists of cheap labor usually fall back to the all-encompassing line, “Life is unfair; people were created unequal. Eight cents is still better than nothing.” Certainly, there is some truth to that claim. Nevertheless, we hold the key to that inequity just as we held the key to end slavery more than 100 years ago and segregation decades ago. Corporations can level that inequity by lifting a pinky and pocketing a few dollars less in their pockets. Still, you could continue to argue it is not the duty of the United States to oversee the welfare of the rest of the world’s population. After all, we are capitalists with a flare for free trade and a market economy. If the workers have something to offer – in this case, their labor – and the corporations are willing to buy that labor, then a perfect contract has been made and there is no need for the government to intervene. I argue that unless you are a communist, capitalism doesn’t necessarily equal exploitation. Furthermore, while the United States does supposedly have a market economy, it is also a democracy, a term that is hard to succinctly define but undeniably connotes freedom for all and the advocacy of universal human rights.

Thus, for the sake of remaining true to the very foundations upon which our country is built, we should support the efforts of the U.S. government in regulating cheap labor. In effect, those who toss human rights out, claiming the ambiguous “It’s capitalism” banner as a shield are simultaneously disclaiming the values of democracy. How can the United States continue to lead the world as a so-called “freedom fighter” and as a watchdog of human rights in other countries when its corporations are the very perpetrators of human rights violations around the world? In essence, it is our duty to serve as an example of all that democracy is and should be by eliminating child labor and other unjust labor practices globally.

Finally, it is important to remember that I’m not asking U.S. corporations to raise every worker’s wage to $6 an hour or else pull out of every third-world country. But I do believe adherence to the very basic labor laws of an eight-hour workday, safe conditions and a few more dimes in wages is imperative. Even if that means a few dollars less in annual profits, it is a cheap tradeoff for a better global image that is undeniably crucial to the maintenance of any powerful state.

So far, the Office of International Labor Affairs (a part of the U.S. State Department) has made numerous steps to ensure more just labor practices for workers within U.S. borders and those beyond. Each year, the office provides funds assisting anti-sweatshop work and facilitates interagency cooperation on international labor affairs. Its efforts should be applauded. But unfortunately, sweatshops are still entrenched in a large portion of East Asia and more direct action is needed. As Americans, it is our duty to do all that is in our power to ensure fair labor practices in the global factory. After all, there is more than a moral issue at stake – there is a dire need to ensure the U.S. image is not one of watchdog in other countries’ human rights abuses and a blind man to that of our own corporations.

Diana Fu is a University first-year student.

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