Blackadder’s Lair

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Schindler’s Sweatshops

Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi party member. During World War II, Schindler opened a factory in Poland making enamel kitchenware using Jewish slave labor. Life for the Jewish workers in Schindler’s factory was far superior to life in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps to which they would otherwise have been subjected. Still, working conditions in Schindler’s factory were such that, were they to occur in a factory in the developing world today, they would no doubt be roundly condemned. Nevertheless, Schindler is today known as a hero precisely because of the kind comparatively kind treatment he bestowed on the Jewish workers in his factories during WWII.

No doubt much of the heroism associated with Schindler’s actions has to do with his motivations. While he started his factory merely with an eye towards making money, as the war progressed he became motivated by concern for his workers in their own right, to the extent that by the end of the war he was willing to lose all of the fortune he had earlier amassed protecting his workers form the Nazis. Had he acted purely out of self-interest (first out of a desire for money, then out of a desire to save his own skin by ingratiating himself with his soon to be liberated Jewish employees) then he would likely be regarded not with awe but with disdain. But if the only difference between Schindler the hero and Schindler the villain is his motivation (not any of his actions, or the results thereof), then we must admit that it cannot be per se immoral for employers to employ workers in horrible conditions and with little or no pay.

Further, even if Schindler had not acted from altruistic motives, this would not have changed the fact that life in his factory was far superior for those who worked there than any realistic alternative. To suggest that, because of his impure motivations, it would have been better had his factory not existed, or that the only moral course of action for Schindler was to pay his workers a living wage and provide Western working conditions or shut down, is not very plausible, morally speaking.

The upshot of all this is that the question of whether action ought to be taken to prohibit or close sweatshops turns largely on a question of fact rather than on a dispute about moral principle. Advocates of a “laissez-faire” approach to the question of sweatshops do not deny the low pay or poor conditions that accompany sweatshops. They maintain, however, that as with Schindler’s factories the jobs there are 1) better than the alternatives, and 2) will lead to better pay and conditions over time. And while disputes over matters of fact are not always clear, it should be noted that the factual case in favor of allowing sweatshops has won over a number of people who one wouldn’t think of as being terribly predisposed towards the free market, such as New York Times Columnists and the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Or, in many cases the factory workers themselves. As New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write in their book Thunder from the East:

Fourteen years ago, we moved to Asia and began reporting there. Like most Westerners, we arrived in the region outraged at sweatshops. In time, though, we came to accept the view supported by most Asians: that the campaign against sweatshops risks harming the very people it is intended to help. For beneath their grime, sweatshops are a clear sign of the industrial revolution that is beginning to reshape Asia.

The reason many workers in the developing world favor sweatshops is that they can see the benefits such factories bring with their own eyes. As Johan Norberg describes the situation:

Ten years ago, when Nike was established in Vietnam, the workers had to walk to the factories, often for many miles. After three years on Nike wages, they could afford bicycles. Another three years later, they could afford scooters, so they all take the scooters to work (and if you go there, beware; they haven´t really decided on which side of the road to drive). Today, the first workers can afford to buy a car.

Sweatshop workers may also have a somewhat different perspective on the alternatives to their current line of work. Here’s Norberg again:

when I talk to a young Vietnamese woman, Tsi-Chi, at the factory, it is not the wages she is most happy about. Sure, she makes five times more than she did, she earns more than her husband, and she can now afford to build an extension to her house. But the most important thing, she says, is that she doesn´t have to work outdoors on a farm any more. For me, a Swede with only three months of summer, this sounds bizarre. Surely working conditions under the blue sky must be superior to those in a sweatshop? But then I am naively Eurocentric. Farming means 10 to 14 hours a day in the burning sun or the intensive rain, in rice fields with water up to your ankles and insects in your face.

I understand the visceral reaction that the poor pay and conditions can bring, and I can also understand why people might wish very much that sweatshops were an unnecessary evil, and that companies could be forced to pay workers in the developing world developed world wages without any negative unintended consequences. I would ask, though, that people be willing to consider the contrary arguments and evidence with an open mind, rather than simply dismissing them out of hand.

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January 7, 2009 - Posted by | Capitalism, Economics, Poverty, Trade

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