As consumers, it is not often that we think of the origin of where the clothes we wear come from. We find ourselves submissive to the idea of finding the best deal or the lowest cost possible. For multinational corporations (MNCs), this mentality is similar. “The Race to the Bottom” refers to the idea of MNCs seeking to find the lowest production cost possible in order to manufacture their products. Through a corporate lens, this all seems great and effective, however through an ethical lens, we can find many things that do not align with the values of humanity, i.e. sweatshops. A sweatshop can be defined as a factory or workshop, especially in the clothing industry, where manual workers are employed at very low wages for long hours under poor conditions and many health risks. This essay will explore two opposing philosophers views on international sweatshops as well as explain why MNCs should be obligated to pay its employees a living wage in developing countries.
Zwolinski: Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation
Matt Zwolinski attempts to argue that sweatshop employees and employers mutually agree to the conditions of their employment and that the workers choice to accept these conditions are “morally significant” (Zwolinski, 689). He goes on to argue that this is an exercise of their autonomy and as an expression of their preferences. The “moral magic of choice” is presented in two ways in which choice can be morally transformative; autonomy-exercising choice and preference evincing choice. Zwolinski states that autonomy-exercising choice essentially is viewing the “decisions of others as worthy of our respect because we believe that they reflect the agents will, or because they stem from desires, goals and project that are expressive the agents authentic self” (Zwolinski, 691). By this he goes on to say that “it would be wrong to interfere with the agents action, even if we think the action is bad for his/her and even if we disagree with the reasoning that underlies her decision”. In short, he believes that it is going against the agents autonomy by interfering with the action they choose to pursue. In the case of sweatshops, Zwolinski believes this same principle applies in that a worker makes the autonomous choice to accept conditions of employment and establish a strong claim to freedom from certain sorts of interference by others.
Zwolinski illustrates that choices are more than a method of exercising autonomy but rather “signal information about an agent’s preferences” (Zwolinski, 693). He gives an example of an agent under threat from a gunman of “your money or your life”. While he is given the option of either, with the action of handing over his wallet, we can note that he has the preference of his life over his money. Although this example is of the opposite spectrum of sweatshops, it presents a similar idea. “A workers choice to accept sweatshop labor can be morally transformative by signaling information about her preferences…it shows that she prefers that kind of labor to any other alternative” (Zwolinski, 694). Given that this type of labor may not be of intrinsic desire, when considering all other aspects – poverty, paid wages in alternative sources of employment, etc – she prefers to work there than anything else she could do.
Studies have shown that sweatshop jobs pay 3-7 times more than jobs elsewhere in the economy. So even if we were to think that the conditions of a sweatshop were unfair, relative to their other alternatives, sweatshop labour is a very attractive option for workers in the developing world. This also why workers are often so eager to accept these jobs. However, no one on either side of the debate defends forced labour, but so long that sweatshop labour is voluntary, even in the weak sense of being free from physical coercion, workers will only take a job in a sweatshop when that job is better for them than any other alternatives.
Moreover, even those were to believe that sweatshop labour is a bad idea or unethical, it would be a bad idea to prohibit it. Those who take these sweatshop jobs are what Zwolinski considers to be “desperately poor” and low on options. So to take away sweatshops does nothing to eliminate that poverty or enhance their options. In fact, in only reduces them further by taking way what the workers themselves regard as the best option they have.
Moreover, Zwolinski argues that it is better to do something to end the problem of global poverty than to do nothing at all. Sweatshops are doing that something to help; they are providing people with jobs that pay better than their other alternatives and they are contributing to the process of economic development. However, Western MNCs are doing nothing to improve the lives of these workers by choosing to not outsource their production at all. “We criticize a firm for failing to benefit a certain group of individuals sufficient, even though it benefits that group a little. But we do not fault other firms for failing to benefit that group at all and we do not fault the firm in question for failing to benefit other, possibly much worse off groups, at all” (Zwolinski, 708).
In conclusion, Zwolinski believes that the choices of the workers are not to be interfered with and their autonomy included. The sweatshop labour market in developing countries provides a much better lifestyle and pay considering other options workers may be left with. He argues that while the low paying wages and an emotionally abusive manager may not be the best option available to many workers, it is an option that provides them with greater opportunities and is better than “doing nothing”. Zwolinski would argue that MNCs doing business in developing countries should not be obligated to pay a living wage to their employees as per mentioned above, the fact that these MNCs are going into these countries and providing jobs to these civilians is doing something rather than nothing.
Debra Satz: Voluntary Slavery and the Limits of the Market
Debra Satz provides a normative perspective on bonded labour and an analysis on Libertarianism and Paretian Welfare Economics, addressing her view on sweatshops and international labour. She begins with defining a bonded labour arrangement as “a person is tied to a particular creditor as a laborer for an indefinite period until some loan in the past is repaid” (Satz, 171). Satz links bonded labour as an analogy to slavery and admits that it is generally contracted voluntarily but questions why labour bondage is even offered as voluntary. She explains that “poor peasants have no assets, they have no formal collateral” (Satz, 172). These labours voluntarily join these sweatshops because otherwise the income they could receive elsewhere fluctuates inconsistently, therefore they are given insurance to a steady income. Satz goes on to say that both Libertarians and Paretians ignore or dismiss other considerations that look at labour bondage more critically
Libertarian economics tend to highlight the importance of respecting individuals rights; believe in the freedom to contract as long as it is in bounds of the justice system. In order for bonded labor to be allowed, a libertarian will consider whether the goods and services to be exchanged were acquired by legitimate means and whether or not the exchange was voluntary. Satz questions this notion as she states that the understanding of “voluntary” is not to be confused with “coerced”. Libertarians seem to think that sweatshop workers or labour bondage is all voluntary but can we truly identify whether these choice were voluntary or if they were coerced because of outside factors? Satz links back to Zwolinski’s gunman example “your money or your life” stating that “what makes the offer coercive is clearly not that you have no power to choose”. Even if these sweatshop workers were to have a “choice”, they really are coerced into choosing that option which will bring them safety and survival, in which the labour bondage arrangements will manipulate in order to get these workers to “voluntarily” work for them.
Satz also mentions children in their capabilities of making just decisions. “Children are not born with all the requisite capacities for making choices, acting justly and supporting themselves…children raised to be servile labours tied to a single employer for a lifetime will likely lack the habits and dispositions that enable them to see themselves as rights bearers and independent sources of moral claims” (Satz 179). Here we see Satz addressing an issue that Zwolinski failed to mention and given that children are more often than not used as sweatshop labour workers, it is important to recognize the damage that is done when putting children in that environment.
Debra Satz also gives her analysis on paretian welfare economics, stating that welfare economists “operate with a view of human welfare (or well being) that identifies it with the satisfaction of preferences” (Satz 179). However, she goes on to argue that it is next to impossible and very subjective to be able to compare the preferences of different individuals and the extent of their satisfaction. She goes on to define the concept of a Pareto optimum that compares social states without comparing individual preferences that welfare economics use. Pareto improvement “is a change in a social state that leaves at least one person better off and no one worse off” (Satz, 180).
Satz would argue that MNCs doing business in developing countries should be obligated to pay a living wage to their employees as she views bonded labour as going against the morals of a society and a balance between egalitarian views and market values should be found in order to move in a better future.
In the analysis of both Zwolinski and Satz’ arguments, we can not that the debate over international sweatshops continues and differences still arise. In regards to Zwolinski, the choices of the workers are not to be interfered with and their autonomy included therefore the choice the workers make to work for a sweatshop is theirs alone and should not be interfered with. Moreover, Zwolinski argues that these workers have no better choice offered to them as these sweatshop jobs offer something rather than nothing. The problem with the argument is to determine whether or not these choices being made are completely voluntary (as Satz mentions). When given the choice to work at a sweatshop or in the urban sector when you could potentially make far less than you would in the factory, the choice is not entirely voluntary. See, these workers really have no choice. They are coerced into working for these MNC’s sweatshops as they have a family to support and their will to survive is at a greater cost. Debra Satz arguably see this argument as flawed as mentioned, these workers are coerced and are being indirectly forced into working in these poor conditions.
In regards to whether a multinational corporation doing business in a developing country is obligated to pay its employees (contracted or subcontracted) a living wage, I would have to side with Zwolinski in that the idea of aiding to help developing countries by providing them with paying jobs, will get us closer to the direction of ending world poverty. While I do agree that Zwolinski’s argument does in fact have many holes, including child labour and determining whether a choice is voluntary or not, I would still argue that the choice should be given to workers and is their autonomy to determine whether or not they have a preference to work there. Additionally, Satz fails to recognize that humans are autonomous beings and have the right against coercion. That being said, I would argue that Zwolinski provides a fair and just argument for MNCs not being obligated to pay a living wage to their employees in developing countries and that providing jobs to these workers is doing far more than those companies who choose to do nothing at all.