[First Last Name]
[Date Month Year]
I consider the arguments of Benjamin Powell and Matt Zwolinski (1 – 24) in the defense of sweatshop labor relatively solid and convincing. I agree with all the philosophical arguments that they forwarded except in minor areas in their supporting arguments. As such, this essay is largely a rejoinder of their arguments with additional supportive points that may strengthen their pro-sweatshop labor position.
I agree that the labor market for sweatshops continues to be competitive, and the prima facie proof that the sweatshop employment was the best alternative accessible to them rests on the fact that they have voluntarily chosen to be employed in the sweatshop (3). The Arnold and Hartman (208) argument of free markets with free flow of information cannot be supported in reality because information never flows freely, especially exact information about the sweatshop jobs before and even during employment. I agree that that the transaction must be “truly voluntary”; and in all indications it had been. However, it does not necessarily follow that people make rational decisions all the time even about their self-interest. Experience contradicts that statement. A rational decision premised on a “free flow of information” will not always be rational for the reason that neither the flow nor the information itself is free. This informational imperfection in the market justifies its own essential existence (4).
The insistence of anti-sweatshop advocates that certain standards of treatment of the workers’ rights as “non-waivable” constitutes a lack of respect for their freedom to decide whether to waive such rights or not (4). How can a person advocating for workers’ rights be truly advocate of their rights when that person could not even respect the worker’s right to waive or not to waive certain rights in order to keep income-generating occupations for their family even if the job can be found in sweatshops? The issue on life expectancies is irrelevant. The issue is whether the rights of workers to work wherever they want to work, in whatever conditions that might be, as long as they chose freely to work there, are being respected. Given the workers have no other option for earning an income, I agree with Powell and Zwolinski (4) that such lack of other option makes their work in a sweatshop involuntary. They knew they had no option available; so they voluntarily and rationally took the sweatshop income opportunity.
Anti-sweatshop advocates are prone to use the term “cruelty” to describe the low-compensation condition of sweatshop workers. Philip Hallie defines it as the “infliction of ruin, whatever the motives” (1969: 14). For the outsider often the inflictor of pain or ruin is always the employer who makes decisions with regard to salary and compensation. While poverty could be an outcome of grave injustice depending on the cause, it is not logical to impute guilt to the sweatshop employer. The outsiders, however, will not understand that, while workers may have to choose within their severely constrained set of options, they are always free to choose between working in the sweatshop and all subsequent conditions found in it and the prospect of not working there at all. The outsiders will not understand that workers understood the tradeoffs they have to make in order to earn incomes from sweatshops that were otherwise unavailable to them from other enterprises.
In such a condition, sweatshop labor becomes the best choice within that constrained set of choices, and cruelty was never part of the equation partly because constrained situations had been fabrics of their daily experiences, something that outsiders cannot begin to understand. The less ideal conditions were tradeoffs they were willing to make, knowing very well that the sweatshops could not offer both, in exchange for the income they earned, which to them are more critical to their well-being than other incentives. In fact, getting accepted to work in the sweatshop may even be perceived as the employer’s exercise of generosity and compassion towards these workers (Rynes, Bartunek, Dutton and Margolis, 2012: 507). Cruelty, as “infliction of ruin,” therefore, follows, not after the workers received employment in the sweatshops whatever the condition such employment may provide in the workplace, but in losing such employment when sweatshops close operations in response to increased compensation package demanded through government regulations.
I have mentioned earlier that the opportunities to earn incomes may only be available to workers from the sweatshops than other enterprises. The situation alludes to the active competitiveness of markets where sweatshops and the labor providers operate. Such income were not available in other enterprises, evidenced by the fact that the workers did not sought employment from these other enterprises, because the sweatshop business may not be attractive to competition most probably due to the level of profit obtainable in the industry. That means that profit margins are not attractive for competitors in the sweatshop industry. That means that freedom of entry in this industry is not enough to motivate operators to open new sweatshops under a high-salary regime that attracts workers to make acceptable profits based on wealth maximization. If that is so, it becomes clear that the salary level of workers in the sweatshop represents a standard, apparently the maximum possible salary for this industry based on the profit margin available to business owners without the risk of lay-offing employees. Thus the standard neoclassical economic theory operates even so in the sweatshop industry.
I also agree with Powell and Zwolinski (6) that nutrition models of efficiency wages cannot support the contention that an increased wage logically results to increased productivity of workers because “workers will spend some portion of their earnings on things other than their own food.” In fact, even an increase in earnings will not guarantee that an increase of spending for food accompanies such increase. The probability will still be strong that the same amount of food spending continues before and after such wage increase; thus, not contributing to an improved factor that brings increased productivity. Logically, the control of worker productivity is only available within the context of the workplace (that is, close supervision) whether or not wage increase occurs. The conclusion is inevitable that no reason exists for sweatshop employers to believe that “pushing for higher wages will result in higher productivity. Thus, the standard economic theory still holds. In fact, while the prediction that higher wages will lead to lower employment, employers know that the rephrasing of the theory is also true: lower wages will lead to higher employment.
Furthermore, I agree with Powell and Zwolinski (7) that wages (direct compensation), together with benefits and incentives (indirect compensation), as part of the compensation package must be jointly determined as these constitute costs of operation. Since wages, benefits and incentives, including health and safety, hold a ceiling for expenditure as a percentage of the profits, that ceiling is fixed in order to maintain the bottom line for the business owners. Consequently, if non-salary compensation costs increase, wage automatically decreases. If non-wage compensation goes beyond the profits from increased productivity, Powell and Zwolinski correctly pointed, lay-offing a small number of workers may result. Thus, the contention of Arnold and Hartman that higher wages are possible without losing the health and safety incentive is blatantly unfounded, purely theoretical, and unconnected with business realities. In fact, Powell and Clark (n. p.) had established that few workers were willing to sacrifice any portion of their wages in exchange of non-monetary incentives such as health and safety benefits.
These issues considered the decision to keep the wages low, or within the productivity profits of the workers, also keep workers in active employment. As such, the employer of the sweatshop acted, not with cruelty, but instead with compassion. A self-interest theory of compassion described a motivation of caring about the well-being of others based on a perspective that people are part of a larger whole (Rynes, Bartunek, Dutton and Margolis, 2012: 507). The foresighted decision to preferably keep the workers employed even at low wages is a decision that takes into consideration the “well-being of others”; thus, an act of compassion.
And it is here that the notion of human dignity, as defined by William Parent, comes in. Human beings have the moral obligation to protect each other from arbitrary harm and humiliation in the hands of others. The decision to keep workers employed, under less ideal market conditions as well as relatively lower wages and less ideal working conditions, is more consistent with upholding human dignity as opposed to increasing wages on the expense of the unemployment of some.
Contrary to what anti-sweatshop proponents refused to accept, the productivity of workers is strongly connected with the level of wage. If the level of worker productivity increases, business earnings also increase resulting to more profits, which the sweatshop employer will have logical reasons to share to the workers through wage increase. Unless bad will and greed can be justifiably imputed to the sweatshop employers, that is the natural dynamics existing between wage and productivity.
Finally, I agree with Powell and Zwolinski (14) that minimum wage laws are “immoral” but with specific qualifications. First, it is immoral if the mechanism of setting the minimum wage is arbitrary without open consultation with both the workers and the employers. As such, the actual business situation gets ignored in favor of capricious wage choices. Second, it is immoral if it fails to check arbitrary abuses from employers who refused to compensate increased worker productivity, which had resulted to measurable and verifiable increase in profits. In this respect, I cannot agree on universality of this notion of the immorality of minimum wage laws. It may be immoral in certain locations; but not in all.
Overall, I agree with the arguments of Powell and Zwolinski that the workers were free, although under constrained sets of choices, when they decided to work in sweatshops, both as an indicator a competitive labor market and a rational appreciation of their need to make tradeoffs in favor of an employment under less ideal working conditions over unemployment. I also agree that, barring verifiable exploitative intentions, sweatshops employers who hired these workers to work for them under less ideal compensation packages and working environments acted with compassion in mind (that is, protecting these workers from unemployment) instead of cruelty. Such decision too supports the defense of human dignity and is consistent with the standard economic theory.
Likewise, I agree that the nutrition model of efficiency wages does not hold as it is illogical to assume that increase in food expenditure always follows an increase in wages. Moreover, any increase in the benefits and incentive portions of the workers’ compensation package will inevitably result either to a decrease of wages or that of employed workers. Furthermore, considering all these dynamics between compensation and unemployment in one hand and worker productivity and consequent profits in another, I maintain that minimum wage laws as immoral cannot be universalized as these laws have beneficial functions in checking exploitative practices while keeping it “moral” through proper stakeholder consultations.
Arnold, D. and L. Harman. “Beyond Sweatshops: Positive Deviance and Global Labor
Practices.” Business Ethics: A European Review. 2005: 206-222. Cited in, Powell, B. and M. Zawolinski. “The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A
Critical Assessment.” Journal of Business Ethics 19 October 2011: 1-24. PDF File
Hallie, P.P. The Paradox of Cruelty. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1969. Cited in, G.
Baruchello. “Cruelty and Austerity.” Nordicum-Mediterraneum 2013: 1-8. PDF File
Powell, B. and J.R. Clark. Guatemala Sweatshops: Employee Evidence on Working Conditions.
Boston, MA: Suffolk University, 2010. Cited in, Powell, B. and M. Zawolinski. “The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A Critical Assessment.” Journal of Business Ethics 19 October 2011: 1-24. PDF File
Powell, B. and M. Zawolinski. “The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A
Critical Assessment.” Journal of Business Ethics 19 October 2011: 1-24. PDF File
Rynes, S.L., J.M. Bartunek, J.E. Dutton, and J.D. Margolis. “Care and Compassion through an
Organizational Lens: Opening Up New Possibilities.” Academy of Management Review October 2012: 503-523. PDF File DOI: 10.5465/amr.2012.0124.
Shultziner, D. and I. Rabinovici. “Human Dignity, Self-Worth and Humiliation: A Comparative
Legal-Psychological Approach.” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law February 2012 18(1): 105-143. PDF File DOI: 10.1037/a0024585.