What Are We Supposed To Do About Sweatshops?

Author’s Note: I must warn you that what you read below is an inadequate discussion of an extremely important topic.  I will rely on you as the reader to continue the discourse, as I do not have time to address every issue that I desire to here.

The title question is one that I have asked, and continue to ask, myself quite often.  My thoughts on the issue have evolved over time and came to a head while writing a paper in college for a class on the book of James.  The paper focused mainly on passages in James chapter two and chapter six.  The idea was to discuss how the current global economy, specifically the uses of sweatshops and cheap labor, interact with the passages.

While writing this paper I was also preparing to move to Haiti and I stumbled across some information about factories in there, both past a present, specifically Disney using Haitian laborers to put together Pocahontas sandals for a minute fraction of the amount of money the sandals were sold for, and also the Gildan T-shirt company, their own use of cheap labor, and the fact that those in charge of the factory had been implicated in numerous violent crimes as well as drug trafficking.  I had a hard time meshing the fact that I worked for an organization promoting justice in Haiti with being a consumer of products from these companies.  At the time the organization I was working for was even buying their promotional clothing from Gildan, made in Haiti, which as of my last hearing they no longer do.  To some degree it felt like walking up a downward moving escalator.

So my wife and I stopped buying products from Disney, our last purchase being tickets to see the Lion King musical, which was fantastic by the way, the year we were married.  We also stopped purchasing products from Wal-Mart, the distributor of many of those products and others made under similar conditions around the world.  We even stopped buying products from Gildan, which was probably the most difficult, being a huge fan of The University of Kentucky and an equally huge fan of wearing T-Shirts means that I often had to check the tags of my blue shirts, usually to my disappointment.  Later we stopped buying Nike, though I have admittedly purchased a few of their products in the past year.

I didn’t choose to boycott these companies for some act of nobility; I wasn’t making it a public scene, though I guess I am now,  I wasn’t boycotting these companies because I felt like I could change their practices or hurt them financially, I think Nike, Disney, and Wal-Mart will all be fine without my business.  I certainly wasn’t boycotting these companies to set myself apart from other people, to give myself some sense of superiority.  Rather, I did so simply because I felt like it was the right thing for me to do at that time and place and I did not, nor do I now think less of anyone who thinks otherwise, much like my thoughts on gun control.

I had a professor in an ethics course in college who, while discussing civil disobedience and boycotting, gave the class a bullet list of points that were important to remember in boycotting/protesting.  One of those points was that if there was not much chance of success then the boycott/protest should not be undertaken.  That has stuck with me for quite some time now and I could not disagree more, and was shocked that he even said it in the first place.  It is pretty terrifying to think what the world would look like right now if everyone held to those same beliefs.

Where do we stop?  Should we actually boycott every company that does wrong?  Is there a line that has to be drawn?  Should we investigate every single company?  I am certain that while I have spurned some products that there are others I purchase that are guilty of equal, if not greater atrocities, and I just do not know of them.  Similarly there are most certainly parts and pieces that make up larger products that I own that were produced here in America manufactured under horrible conditions.  What do I do about that?  A few questions may need to be answered.

What is a sweatshop?  The definition of the word is obviously important.  When most people hear the word they first think of dark factories full of poorly compensated children who are often mistreated and sometimes subject to violence.  This may be a bit of a stylized description but the fact is that these places do exist. The recent events brought to like within Foxconn that include several major electronics producers, including Apple are proof (whether or not those companies knew of the conditions is disputed, though it appears Apple has at least tried to improve the situation).   I am confident when I say that I do not believe we should be buying products from companies that do business in this way.

But what do we do about matters that are not so cut and dried?  I think we can all agree that abusing children, or anyone for that matter, is wrong and that is should not be supported no matter how stylish the resulting shoe or computer may be, but what about when people are paid horrendously low wages in places like Haiti, India, and China in order to maximize profit for companies more than capable of paying a fair wage?

“Fair wage” is equally hard to define.  There are fair wages within the society in which the factory operates, and there are fair wages according outside societies.  A garment factory in India cannot pay employees wages in order to compete with America if that means that for the workers it becomes more profitable to become an assembly line employee than a doctor, although I guess the argument could simply turn to that the doctors are not being paid enough.  At the same time it is definitely wrong for a company to pay low wages, many times below a countries loosely regulated minimum wage, knowing that employees will not leave a job because the cycle of poverty that they are trapped within.  It is not an adequate enough response to write off these jobs as, better than nothing while executives at those same companies are making money hand over fist.

As a sidebar let me acknowledge the fact that there are positives from low wage factory jobs in poor countries.  Many have argued that they offer great benefits, and that many people would love to have those jobs.  Low wage manufacturing jobs can indeed build an economy, I understand that, but it should not be done at the risk of human life.  There are factories around the world that pay low wages, even by the standards of the country in which they operate, but do so legally and with no abuse towards those they employ.  Whether this is a simple nomenclature problem with the term “sweatshop” or an argument for the use of exploitation I am not sure.

Many people choose to accuse governments, candidates, and companies for sending jobs overseas but in reality they should be blaming the “system” itself.  There are thousands, if not millions, of people in America that attack political figures for exporting jobs while adorned in the finest fashions from factories around the third world.  It is hypocritical to espouse the political view of keeping jobs in America and then also complain about the prices of domestic good being too high.  In short Capitalism encourages greed, and it always will and it is our greed that influences companies to send jobs overseas.  This is not an attack, nor an endorsement of Capitalism (I do believe a version of Capitalism is the best system available) or any other economic system, just a simple fact.  Capitalism will fail to produce justice as will Socialism, or any other economic “ism” for that matter, because man will always screw it up, as Johns Kenneth Galbraith cleverly quipped,

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.

As Christians I feel that we are to use all of our assets to further the kingdom of God in any way possible, note that this implies actually furthering the kingdom of God so something like a violent crusade does not legitimately fall into the category of “any means necessary”.  As American Christians we find ourselves some of the wealthiest people in the world, even the 99 percent here in America are the.5 percent throughout the world.  I honestly do not care if you ever buy something from Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart or anywhere else, but what I do care about is whether or not we are using our resources in a way that is in line with the principles of justice and neighbor love in the New Testament.  You may notice that I haven’t answered many questions that I myself posed in this post and that is because I do not know all of the answers.  I am still working through this process myself, forming my views and failing often.  Because of this I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts as the reader, so let’s talk about this in the comment section below.

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.

Also, I have included a list of websites that you may find helpful in further research on this topic as well as a few other related issues (foreign policy, food aid, human rights abuses etc.).

Fair Trade International

Amnesty International

International Justice Mission

Human Rights Watch


The Chalmers Center For Economic Development

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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