The One Minute Case for “Sweatshops”

The opposition to sweatshops

Opposition to “sweatshops” originated with the socialist movement and the first labor unions, and these groups remain their most vocal critics today. For labor unions, sweatshops are both competition and evidence that unions are not needed to raise wages and improve working conditions. For socialists, sweatshops are their last, best hope, that somewhere, somehow, capitalism causes suffering. Here are some of their loudest arguments against sweatshops:

“Sweatshops pay low wages and subject workers to harsh conditions”

It is ignorant and misleading to hold businesses in the developing world to the same standards as those in the West. Multinational companies face entirely different challenges and expenses than in the West: oppressive, unpredictable, and corrupt governments, long distances, language and cultural barriers, lack of a skilled or educated workforce, primitive infrastructure, and labor activists back at home.

Consider the condition of third world countries before the multinationals arrival. The majority of people live in the same state as they have for all of human history – in a permanent state of near-starvation, with no jobs and no future to look forward to other than the backbreaking labor of subsidence farming. Everyone works from almost from the time that he or she can walk, and most children die young from starvation or malnutrition. If they are lucky, they find work as scavengers, farm hands, prostitutes, beggars, petty criminals, or trash collectors.1

Sweatshops” offer a considerable improvement from this state: Sweatshop wages are more than double the national average in Cambodia, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Honduras. In Honduras, where almost half the working population lives on $2/day, “sweatshops” pay $13.10/day.2

“Sweatshops use child labor”

Child labor is not caused by markets, but a universal fact of human society throughout history.  It  is  necessary in the developing world because given the low productivity of their parents, the alternative is starvation.  It is only the unprecedented wealth generated by capitalism which created the possibility of most children (rather than a small elite) spending their childhood with play and learning rather than labor.

According to a 1997 UNICEF study, 5,000 to 7,000 Nepalese children turned to prostitution after the US banned that country’s carpet exports in the 1990s.  After the Child Labor Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as “stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution.” The UNICEF study found these alternative jobs “more hazardous and exploitative than garment production.

The only way to eradicate child labor is the same as in was eliminated the West – by raising the productivity of adults sufficiently to feed their families.

“Sweatshops are coercive environments”

Workers in sweatshops are free to quit or look for another job anytime, but they remain because they consider it the next best alternative. Their pay and working conditions seem low to us, but they are an economic step forward compared to subsistence farming. Real slavery exists today not due to economic development, but due to totalitarian regimes that do not recognize basic human rights such as North Korea, Cuba, and the Islamist militias of Sudan.

“Sweatshops destroy local cultures”

One criticism with a kernel of truth, is that globalization obliterates local cultures by exporting Western values. Capitalism does encourage certain values such as productivity, rationality, independence, and equality of opportunity, which are incompatible with the fatalism, tribalism, caste-based discrimination, and misogyny of most primitive societies. Rather than condemn these values, we should recognize that they are responsible for the tremendous material success of Western civilization and urge their adoption worldwide.


  1. UNICEF: State of the World’s Children 1997
  2. Ben Powell and David Skarbek: Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? Journal of Labor Research; Spring 2006.

Further reading:


Filed under Economics

29 Responses to The One Minute Case for “Sweatshops”

  1. shannon

    😥 swaetshops are really bad

  2. bryan

    you should read up on some modern anthropological theory, dude.

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  4. J

    “Workers in sweatshops are free to quit or look for another job anytime”

    Where’s your citation for this claim? Or don’t you think you need one?

    You make a straw man out of the arguments of the antisweatshop movement (which refers to workers in countries around the world as well as solidarity activists in developed and developing countries).

  5. Andrew


    What citation could possibly be needed for that statement? It is a fact. No reference is needed.

    Every worker, whether they work in a sweatshop in Thailand or a marketing firm in NYC has the freedom to quit their job if they do not like the terms and conditions on which their employment is based. Employers and Employees choose to work together because of mutual consent to mutual benefit. A plant manager wants to purchase labor to operate his machinery, and benefits from the people who are willing to sell their labor to him.

    Both parties get what they want. The plant manager gets labor, and the workers get wages.

    • J


      Wrong. You are confusing fact with theory.

      The idea that people are always free to quit whenever is a libertarian fiction that, while theoretically plausible, is not reflected in the real world.

      I wonder what this author has to say to the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian and Thai workers who have been protesting in the streets–to the point of nearly grinding garment activity to a halt–over the past year. That reality doesn’t fit well with the image s/he paints of desperate people willing to take any crappy job that a multinational company will offer.

      The author doesn’t want to acknowledge developing country workers struggling to improve their working conditions, only the union bogeyman. Big surprise.

  6. Pete

    sure it is better than the next best thing but does that make it alright? prostitution is bad and terrible prob worst than sweatshops but does that mean that we have to settle for that? can we not work harder for a higher level of living for them? if we all paid an extra dollar for a tee shirt that a worker was paid 0.20 cents for, they could have a 6 fold income increase. is that not a good thing?
    “Workers in sweatshops are free to quit or look for another job anytime, but they remain because they consider it the next best alternative. ”
    is that trying to justify the abuse some go through? when can a child forced into sweatshops given a choice? there is none
    its not about being better than what they have, but about giving civilized human standards
    dont ban the jobs but simply improve them

  7. matt

    wow, shannon, nice spelling and nice evidence/supporting ideas.
    By the way are you dyslexic?

  8. Melissa

    I agree with your arguments about sweatshops often being much better than the alternatives and that anti-sweatshop efforts are generally counterproductive. I do not agree with your complete dismissal of other cultures, however. Many aspects of our culture may be superior to aspects of other cultures, but there are also ways in which our culture is inferior. Every virtue comes with a vice. The danger of any culture is that harmful ideals and customs become so commonplace and accepted that they are never questioned, to the detriment of that society.

    I do have one question: Are you claiming capitalism isn’t coercive? Pretty much every human system in existence is coercive, otherwise the world would be in chaos. Coercion can often be detrimental, but it also allows the lucky a semblance of a tolerable existence.

    In regards to Pete’s question, “Is it alright?” and “shouldn’t we buy a t-shirt to help the cause?” It most definitely is not alright, which is why we must constantly strive to make the world a better place. But the answer is not handing out artificially boosted wages in a few select factories. This isn’t sustainable because it requires action on our part. While we do need to address immediate needs, we also need to avoid creating dependence. In order to really change the world we have to help people help themselves, help them develop an economy that will eventually produce higher wages and a higher standard of living. Of course, there’s always the whole living under tyrannical and corrupt governments issue…but you increase the size of that middle class, you increase the likely hood that human rights will prevail.

  9. my sister has dyslexia but she can live a very normal life eventhough she can’t read that much~.~

  10. dyslexia can affect anyone of use but this disease is not very debilitating anyway–.

  11. Michael

    Are you claiming capitalism isn’t coercive?

    Yes capitalism isn’t coercive. If you think it is then you don’t know what capitalism is.

    is that trying to justify the abuse some go through?

    No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom. requiring higher standards raises the total costs of labour in third world countries: some factories will employ fewer people, and others will shut down. It’s no surprise that the most vocal advocates of high labour standard imposition are western labour unions who don’t really care about poor people abroad but instead just want to price the competition out of business. A few workers who get to keep their jobs will be made better off by these regulations, but the folks who are currently working in the sweatshops are already the winners. The losers are the folks who never get a chance to work in a sweatshop.

    Kids are born, live, and die in the garbage dumps, and know no life except walking barefoot through rubbish looking for scraps. For these folks, work in a sweatshop is a dream. However bad conditions in the factories sound to us, when we compare them to our comfy offices, they’re almost infinitely better than self-employment in the garbage dumps. And, the garbage dump is the relevant alternative for a lot of folks. For others, it’s worse. Radley Balko reports on some of the costs of anti-sweatshop protests. One German company bowed to popular pressure and laid off 50,000 child garment workers in Bangladesh. Some of you would have cheered on hearing it. But when Oxfam followed up, they found that thousands had turned to prostitution, crime, or starved to death. In 1995, anti-sweatshop protesters led Nike, Reebok and others to close down soccer-ball and other garment manufacturing plants in Pakistan; mean family income dropped considerably; University of Colorado economist Keith Maskus found that many of the child labourers were later found begging or getting bought and sold in international prostitution rings.

    What happens when we talk about legislation banning the import of goods produced using child labour?

    If you’ve been working to ban imported products produced by child labour or in sweatshops, you are buying warm fuzzy feelings at the cost of pushing some of the world’s most vulnerable children into even worse conditions: the garbage dump, begging, child prostitution and starvation. It’s no good to complain that that isn’t what you wanted: you’re just wishing for ponies. It’s no good to complain that foreign governments should be ensuring that every child is in school: they can’t afford it, and the most we can do is contribute to charities that subsidize local education in third world countries. It’s no good to complain that foreign countries should crack down on child prostitution: of course they should, but they haven’t the resources. The best we can do is assist charities that work to get kids off the streets. If you care about poor children in the poorest part of the world, don’t work to make their lives worse. Work for the charities that are out there trying to help these kids, like Canodia – they’re an organization that runs orphanages for kids rescued from the garbage dumps. If you’re working in the anti-sweatshop movement, consider such donations as an offset for the likely effects of your activism, because the likely effects of your efforts is to push kids into the garbage dumps, or worse.

    It’s easy to imagine perfect worlds where there aren’t any sweatshops. But getting rid of sweatshops in the world we have makes the families that work there worse off. At minimum, we should do no harm. Working to ban sweatshops does harm. Stop it.

    • J

      Michael, which country has more anti-sweatshop activists– United States or China? Answer: China, by a long shot. How about the UK and Bangladesh? Bangladesh, again not even close.

      They’re not letting mega-rich corporations off the hook for exploiting them, so why are you? No one is talking about a boycott or a ban–that’s a straw man that makes life easier for sweatshop cheerleaders. We are talking about raising expectations on companies to treat all people with dignity, wherever they do business.

    • Nick

      I think all of the people upset by this article, including the one you replied to, are for the idea of improving sweatshop conditions, not banning them. It’s true that the conditions, while terrible, may seem a vast improvement to the people living in literal dumps. However, does that make it morally excusable for western companies to put no effort into work conditions in these countries, simply because they know the workers probably won’t complain? Of course not. As people who know the difference between good and bad conditions, we have a responsibility to our employees. I find it rather evil to toss someone scraps, just because you know they don’t know they’re still getting the shit end of the stick, just because it’s better than literal dog shit.

  12. Michael

    Some more stuff to add:

    Nicolas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn received a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on China. They report in the New York Times Magazine on sweatshops in China:

    They there find folks very happy to be working 10 hour days, and finding it a plus that the factory that they work at allows them to work seven days.

    “The others we talked to all seemed to regard it as a plus that the factory allowed them to work long hours. Indeed, some had sought out this factory precisely because it offered them the chance to work more.”

    In one case, western pressure to reduce work hours resulted in riots and protest at the company: people wanted to earn more money to improve their kids’ lives and were furious at being denied the opportunity. Many of the kids currently employed in sweatshops would otherwise be employed in agriculture, working on small farms with high risk of malarial exposure and even worse working conditions than those found in the factories. For others, the relevant alternative is even worse than the farm: I’ll come to that shortly.

    here is the link to Kristof’s article from the previous post

    • J


      Citing to Kristof doesn’t “add more stuff” to your argument. All it tells us is that there is a person, who happens to be semi-famous, who shares your view.

      Kristof is an apologist for sweatshops. He seeks out interviewees that will confirm and bolster his world view.

  13. Michael

    A final thought:

    These jobs are important, and even an opportunity, in some developing countries. Of course the workers could be treated better. In Cambodia the girls had to pay a bribe to get the job. In China the workers would clock out and then go back to work. Often they would work more than 100 hours per week.

    thats all from me

  14. Hey man I just wanted to write and say i love reading your blog!

  15. A Country Farmer

    Hi, interesting information. I tried to lookup your reference to the 5,000 to 7,000 extra prostitutes estimated by the UNICEF due to the carpet ban. I won’t post a link since it will be caught by a spam filter, but search for “1997 UNICEF Annual Report.” You’ll find in the PDF that “Every year, an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 girls like Sunita are trafficked from Nepal to India for prostitution.” But I don’t see any discussion about the carpet ban. You’d have to show estimated trafficking out of Nepal before and after the ban.

    • Nah, Ross is wrong. First of all, "we" aren't the mkerat, we're only a small part of the mkerat. In general, people know that they buy stuff that has been produced in sweatshops, but they buy it anyway. The question of what people "ought" to value is irrelevant–in a free mkerat what matters is what people actually value. We know from inductive experience that only government intervention can prevent people from buying the cheaper sneaker that was made by a little Vietnamese child who accidentally sewed his fingers together. We have a lot of inductive evidence (and praxeological explanations) that indicate that such intervention is bad in the long run, even for the little Vietnamese child. There is no particular reason that I can think of that the refusal of people in a hypothetical altruistic society to buy a sweatshop product would have any better effect. If we consciously change our behavior to address what we perceive as social ills, rather than to fulfill our consumer desires, then our impact on the demand curve would be artificial. As a result, we would direct resources away from what is most socially efficient not only for us, but for everyone (just like when the government makes the rules). Our good intentions would end up doing more harm than good in exactly the same way government's good intentions are almost universally counter-productive (in the case of avoiding sweatshop labor we drive up prices, hurting poorer consumers, and eliminating the jobs of sweatshop workers). Of course in short term it's a travesty that people have to work under such conditions (although it's less of a travesty than the alternative, or sweatshop workers would have embraced whatever that alternative is, given the freedom to choose, which they have in free mkerats). But the truth is that the fastest (only?) way to eliminate such conditions without doing more harm than good is through mkerat forces. If the government ensures that sweatshop labor is strictly voluntary than corporations have to compete for it, and conditions improve. If sweatshop labor was priced out of the mkerat because people don't want to see the effects, than the would be workers have no choice but to toil under the alternative that they would have otherwise rejected, and the mechanism for improving their lot (competition) is reduced. The reason we can delegate our moral responsibilities to the mkerat is the same as the reason we can delegate our command of the economy to the mkerat–because the mkerat knows better. That's why we're "bothering with this freedom thing." Indeed, if Ross believes that mkerats only lead to better outcomes if they're manipulated by a sense of altruism, then he oughtn't be a libertarian–in fact he seemingly isn't–libertarians (even the altruistic ones) don't think that altruism should (or even can) be mandated, or otherwise they'd have no choice but to trust government to do so, as no one else can enforce a mandate. The distinction between anarchists (like Ross) and libertarians (my understanding, at least) is that libertarians believe that there needs to be a (minimal) government to prevent coercion in the mkeratplace (like theft and slavery), because people can't be expected to act altruistically at all times (even the altruistic ones). His final point, that if we choose based on our own desires and not our (flawed, basically useless) perception of "social justice" then we're not worthy or ready for liberty, and that it wouldn't be "worth the struggle" is the case of leftists who think that they can do a better job than mkerats at achieving social justice. I'm surprised that someone who knows that previous experience with free sweatshop labor has led to prosperity (as in S. Korea and Taiwan, to say nothing of the US) would think that an "altruistic" alternative can create better results–where and when has it?

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  17. Paul

    This is a poorly-researched article that seeks only to justify libertarian ideologies rather than empirically seek out the truth. If I were a less tasteful person, I’d just call this article crap and leave it at that. This article cites a 1997 UNICEF report for statistics, when the same report argues AGAINST the core argument of this article: one stating that poverty must be alleviated (through increased productivity) in order to end child labor. But don’t take my word for it.

    “The second myth is that child labour will never be eliminated until poverty disappears. But, says UNICEF, hazardous child labour can and must be eliminated independently of poverty reduction. The climate is already changing. At the highest level, governments have begun to move on the issue, realizing that they have to make good the commitments they assumed in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At the local level, activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are exploring creative ways to remove children from dangerous work situations and provide alternatives for them.”

  18. Ramon Robalino

    When the article argues that sweatshops are a better alternative to what’s available, it ignores the fact that what they just said is blatant exploitation. Instead of treating workers with dignity and hospitable working conditions, they allow for dangerous work environments filled with harmful chemicals or infrastructure because they know that it is still prefered over more shady practices. They exploit those who have no other option then act like saviors. Disgusting to even attempt to justify these shops.

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