The gradual opening of developing countries (most significantly in the Far East) to the west, aided by improvements in transport and communications, has dramatically expanded the global labor market. Large and small manufacturing companies from around the globe are now able to use the cheap labor available in those countries to produce much more efficiently than with workers from their home countries. As a result, the business concept of offshoring, which basically implies the allocation of some processes into other countries, is now a common term in business administration and a highly popular cost-reduction technique.
Unfortunately, this method underlies several major ethical dilemmas. Perhaps the most significant problem with offshoring concerns the working conditions of the manufacturing workers overseas. This paper will discuss the issue of the so-called sweatshops, an ethically questionable form of employment, which has already been criticized to be a modern form of slavery.
Sweatshops as an Ethical Dilemma
The term “sweatshop” describes a workplace in which wages are substantially low, working conditions are extremely difficult (e.g. long hours and draconian production quotas) and the assembly line staff are often treated in harsh or even humiliating manner. Many would claim that this situation is not caused by cruelty, but this is rather the result on cost pressure from the side of the customers, most of which are local and international corporations. Moreover, tagging this problem as a local issue of workers’ rights and/or as a human tragedy ignores the true essence of this phenomenon; a sound ethical analysis should examine the reasons that have brought about export-targeted sweatshops, while finding the flaws in modern-age globalization, which should be changed in order to stop this immoral economic activity.
Oppressive and immoral as it is, the vast majority of sweatshops’ employees do not correspond with the classical definitions of slaves. It is presumable that most of them know and accept the conditions they are about to work in. It is mere economic pressures that lead them to contract their employment, sacrificing some basic human need for the sake of livelihood.
It is important to notice that sweatshops are not the sole property of developing countries. In fact, similar working conditions are to be found in many US industries, most notably in the garment industry (Arnold & Hartman, 2005). However, even when sweatshops are located within the target market, they employ the weakest laborers, namely immigrants. This fact correspond with the economic point of view, which stipulates that sweatshops could not have existed without the willingness of people to offer themselves as extremely cheap labor and without the need of manufacturers to cut their labor expenses as much as possible. Thus, as discussed next, the processes that support globalization, particularly easier transfer of goods and people with an economic incentive to do so, support the existence of sweatshops and positively affecting the involved economies.
Thus, the immoral existence of sweatshops (in terms of human rights, child labor and unbalanced urbanization in developing countries) raises several ethical counterarguments:
- First, in a free market, sweatshops are a tool in the hands of developing countries to expand export activities and to improve their economic performance, which benefits all the stakeholders in the countries, including the workers themselves.
- Second, sweatshops usually appear where offering cheap, poorly trained labor is only way for the country to compete effectively on a global scale. In simple words, if the regime will not allow such conditions, the jobs will simply migrate elsewhere.
- Third, the more developed a country is, improved education and opportunities will give people more bargaining power, hence putting a pressure on employers (both foreign and domestic) to improve working conditions in order to attract employees.
- Finally, manufacturing companies may deny their responsibility for the problem. Their offshoring activities are not only beneficial to their immediate stakeholders (e.g. shareholders and customers), but also bring some wealth to the workers, who arguably prefer this option on other alternatives. Moreover, the extent of the phenomenon is so wide, that it represents the legal and ethical conditions in both the source and the target countries. For example, if the US government or the EU would have prohibit imports of products that are manufactured in sweatshops (as done effectively in political embargos), than most companies will seize to produce this way.
Ethical Discrepancies among Nations towards Sweatshops
In addition to economic questions, sweatshops should be also examined in reference to the difference of ethical holdings among nations and societies. That is, if ethics is the tool to know the “good” and “bad,” we should remember that the concepts are prone to the eye of the beholder. Hence, the question to be asked here is whether a rigorous enforcement of the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, is more important than the right of prospective sweatshops workers to get a better income.
Where individuals must consider the possibility of unemployment against earning a subsistence wage in harsh conditions, the workers will most probably prefer the job. Similarly, when parents cannot provide the basic needs of their children, they do not consider child labor unethical. The same holds true for work immigrants, in particularly those who send their modest income to their families back home.
Hence, although there is no doubt that sweatshops lack decent ethical managerial standards, forbidding sweatshop activities also implies not allowing any chance of reducing poverty for low-skilled employees, their families and their societies in general. Such deeds are based on Western ethical perceptions, which try to impose their own believes on others. Ironically, this kind of ethical “compulsion” is unethical by its own right.
On the other hand, arguments as discussed above are rather problematic, as they contain a fallacy of choice (Arnold & Hartman, 2005). That is, a choice between starvation and severe working condition is far from being a free choice. Hence, if the issue is examined from a Western point of view, the concept of choice is irrelevant, as a Western worker would most probably decline such as job offer and thus has the liberty to criticize sweatshops. Finally, many would argue that the circumstances evolving global trade and globalization, in particular the policies of the WTO and the IMF help to sustain offshoring activities and sweatshops. Thus, any preventive treatment of the issue should start with dealing with the environment surrounding sweatshops before taking away those jobs, awful as they are, without offering any alternative.
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Arnold, D. G., & Hartman, L. P. (2005). Beyond sweatshops: Positive deviancy and global labour practices. Business Ethics: A European Review, 14(3), pp. 206-22. Retrieved August 12, 2009 from <http://www.positivedeviance.org/pdf/research/ArnoldHartmanPositiveDeviance.pdf>