Every now and then, human beings are burned alive, die from an explosion, under a building that caved in, take their own lives or collapse due to exhaustion having worked for hours and hours on end in one of the many facilities across the world colloquially referred to as sweatshops. What follows usually entails some moral outrage in western social media and public discourse, a few stories on the generally horrible conditions facing vast amounts of workers that we otherwise never hear of, and some amount of debate concerning the advantages and disadvantages of this particular arrangement.
Within the discussions that follow in the wake of such events, unless we get caught up in particularities or dead ends, we inevitably at some point arrive at the baseline argument: Yes, the sweatshops and the conditions are bad, but it is the best option for many of these people. Charts are presented. Graphs displayed. Look, these poor countries are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They have growth. We get cheap clothes, and they get a chance to at least earn a living. No one forces them to work in the factories, in fact, they are lining up for the jobs. Isn’t this the definition of win-win?
Before addressing the core of this argument, it might be worth to refresh our memories concerning exactly what kind of conditions we’re dealing with for these sweatshop workers around the world. On April 24th, 2013, a nine-story building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, housing thousands of workers, collapsed, leaving over 1000 dead and 2500 injured.  Despite large, visible and growing cracks in multiple parts of the building, textile workers were “ordered” to return to work a day after the building was briefly evacuated. For many of them, that was the last thing they did as the building came down and buried them alive. Some spent days under the rubble, desperately screaming for help among decomposing bodies. Yet others lost limbs, friends or family members. Still, a year after the accident, investigations uncovered continued systemic abuse, for instance regarding “girls as young as 13 forced to work 11 hours a day in unsafe conditions”. 
On the night of August 12th this year, in the huge Port of Tianjin in eastern China, an explosion killed over 100 people, injuring almost 700, in a curious mix of state bureaucratic nepotism and corruption, capitalist pressures, and systemic safety violations.  Meanwhile, in Qatar, approximately 1200 migrant workers have died building facilities for the FIFA World Cup to be held there in 2022, with another 2800 projected to die by the time the games take place. 
We could keep going, just to drive home the point that these are not isolated incidents, but a reoccurring trend – from simply exhausting work, to straight out lethal working conditions. Beyond these spectacular death tolls, lies an entire world of worker health issues, human trafficking, inhumane work hours and degrading treatment – from diamond mines in South Africa, through soft drink producers in India to garment factories in Central and South America. Just in Malaysia, there’s an estimated 2 million foreign workers, often tricked into debt contracts by agents, and stuck indefinitely in what can only be described as modern day slavery. 
We often picture all these things as a distant phenomena, at least at arms length from our western societies. But when 7 Chinese sweatshop workers died in Italy in 2013, the joys of global capitalism had, geographically at least, gone almost full circle.  The mood could hardly be more somber as the Reuters article simply states that
One of the dead suffocated as he tried to escape through a window guarded by iron bars.
No further explanation needed.
But it doesn’t end there, as for instance the slave-like conditions of workers in the American prison-industrial complex testify to. Truth is, the effects of our system are not only felt someplace far away, in exploited countries throughout Africa, Asia or the Middle East, but are present all around us, also in western societies. They manifest as alienated and largely empty labor, “bullshit jobs” to lend David Graeber’s term, the constant conflict over wages and other concessions, and the way in which we, despite all so called progress and technology, often work more and endure greater psychological duress than did people of feudal societies or hunter-gatherers. Thus the standard liberal left narrative of unfortunate injustices far away that we collectively benefit from, rests on a false premise that here at home, everything is pretty much fine.
In fact, what the last 30 or so years of neoliberal policies have shown, is that not only are countries outside the western sphere exploited, coerced and dominated, but this very exploitation is used as a leverage to undermine hard fought gains even in the wealthy parts of the world, fought for by anarchists and other socialists, in Haymarket, in the streets of Paris, or on the barricades in Barcelona. Because when cheap labor is available abroad, even social democrats succumb to the pressures of market logic and see themselves forced to squeeze domestic wages, undermine working conditions and deregulate markets in the name of keeping national industries competitive. What we have seen since the late 1970s is not a political shift, but an ideological one. It is not the case of right wing parties taking over political power everywhere, but to a large extent also social democratic governments, left drifting aimlessly amidst the debris of shipwrecked Keynesian policies, capitulating to the hegemony of neoliberalism.
The notion that we’re universally benefiting, because we can buy cheap clothes, does not tell this full story. What we see when the veil of social constructs taken for granted is removed, are various groups of working class people pitted against each other and irrational use of both human and natural resources. The win-win, it turns out, applies to capitalist interests or corrupt bureaucracies, not the relationship of western workers versus those of the global south. We might be privileged compared to them, but we’re all worse off because of the coercive impositions of neoliberalism and, in the end, capitalism. The division is thus not a geographical one, this place versus that, but one of social relations – class versus class.
The story only gets better when we start to investigate why it happens to be the case, that all these workers are available and dirt cheap in all these countries, “voluntarily” entering death traps and enduring these horrible conditions. This piece of historical context goes back to the colonial era, when colonial powers seized and tried to put their new domains into good use:
In most places in Africa, Asia, and South America, colonisers initially had a very difficult time getting natives to work in their mines, factories, and plantations. To solve this problem, they either forcibly removed farmers from their land or levied onerous taxes in order to coerce them into seeking wage work, all under the guise of the “civilising mission”. This caused hundreds of thousands of people to move to industrial cities where they constituted a reserve army of workers willing to take whatever job they could find. 
Enclosures of commons, high taxes, brutal oppression – wait, haven’t we heard this story before, in another time and place? Indeed, it is precisely what had transpired in the heartland of industrial capitalism, not long before, and what is probably best known as the process described by Marx as primitive accumulation – an early, initial form of building up capital and, “enticing”, what was earlier largely self-sustainable farmers and rural populations to submit to wage labor. More recently, David Harvey revamped this term into accumulation by dispossession, which seems apt, because there is nothing strictly initial or primitive about this accumulation, and it has been ongoing, in different forms and parts of the world, ever since it began in the early days of European capitalism.
When the former colonies increasingly started to gain independence, new ways were added to the arsenal of incentivizing impoverished populations to perform work for the benefit of capital accumulation. One of these was national bondage, as for instance was the case for Haiti. All around the world, former colonial masters demanded compensation for the work they had, erm, overseen in said colonies. These societies were facing the option of complying or dealing with worldwide trade embargoes or military interventions, and so money continued to pour from the global south to the global north, often with humanitarian crises as an ignored side effect. This also happened to countries like Madagascar, Bolivia, the Philippines – the list could go on. Yet others, finding themselves on the wrong side (i.e. not the side of western powers and capitalist interests) of a conflict, were made to pay reparations.
With neoliberalism, a new tool emerged to further squeeze populations in the global south, and this was the process which seriously triggered the new age of sweatshops. In the wake of the crises of the 1970s, with rampant inflation combined with stagnation around the western world, the tune of the new ideology was privatization, deregulation and globalization, albeit somewhat selectively. New global institutions, such as the IMF, were central in administering the implementation of new policies in the countries of the global south. Those struggling with debt or poor finances – often themselves symptoms of earlier and ongoing domination by former colonial nations with imperialist ambitions – were offered a way out: Introduce the policies we require, and we will lend you money. This was the start of structural adjustment programmes (SAPs).
These deals were usually constructed to remove trade tariffs and subsidies in poor countries, deregulating their markets and opening them up for foreign investment, and removing any existing safety nets and public spending on education, health or other related things. Without the protective tariffs, these countries markets were flooded with cheap, subsidized western crops and other farm products, effectively putting entire domestic sectors out of business, once again, driving desperate populations into city centers where, you guessed it, western capitalists, thanks to the new policies, could buy up land, build factories, and take advantage of desperate people in an attempt to restore some of the profits that had gone missing since the end of the Keynesian era. To add insult to injury, these deals were often worked out with unaccountable and corrupt political elites, and much of the loans would often disappear never to be seen again by the general population. Where populations tried to or successfully overthrew such arrangements, outraged western interests would make the populations pay reparations.
An interesting case in point is the story of Ladakh, an isolated and sparsely populated area in the northernmost India. The inhabitants of this area lived without major outside interference, in agricultural communities on the mountainsides and plateaus of western Himalaya. They were self-sustainable, enjoyed good conditions with a lot of leisure time, and none of the social problems associated with western lifestyles – unemployment, inequality, and so on.
In the mid 1970s, Ladakh was suddenly thrown open to the outside world. Cheap, subsidized food, trucked in on subsidized roads, by vehicles running on subsidized fuel undermined Ladakh’s local economy. At the same time, the Ladakhis were bombarded with advertising and media images, that romanticized western style consumerism, and made their own culture seem pitiful by comparison. 
Suddenly unemployment, poverty, divisiveness, inequality and even violence cause by social tensions became part of the everyday life for the people of Ladakh.
These changes weren’t the result of innate human greed or some sort of evolutionary force. They happened far too suddenly for that. They were clearly the direct result of the exposure to outside economic pressures. [T]hese pressures created intense competition, breaking down community and the connection to nature that had been the cornerstone of Ladakhi culture for centuries. This was Ladakh’s introduction to globalization. 
Returning to the topic of sweatshops in general, it should now be clear that we are not dealing with a situation where the word “voluntary” makes sense as soon as we contextualize what actually happens. Desperate people, people made desperate by institutions that work hand in hand with business, are funneled into exploitative and dangerous labor, often under geopolitical conditions that make a mockery even of washed out concepts of representative democracy. The result is that groups of people are played out against each other across regions, and thus it is incorrect to simply say that the workers in the west benefit – often they lose their own jobs, security or autonomy in the process of globalization. It is also wrong to put the blame on the plate of consumers. Not only is it extremely hard for people to even know what layers of abuse and exploitation hide behind the commodities as they appear to them in the stores, but the entire purpose of this anonymous market of commodities is precisely to decouple the social relations of producers and consumers.
Very few people, if put in directly social relationships with others, would even think of submitting their peers to these levels of abuse just to get a shirt or some consumer good – never mind that without the backing of a strong coercive force, they wouldn’t have the power to do it. But from the vantage point of each individual actor in this individualized yet global setting – consumer, producer, distributor, worker – they are all doing what the system presents as their best option. This is often mistaken for a reflection of some sort of inevitable human nature, or an expression of self-interest, when it is just the result of people choosing between sets of rigged options. It is a systemic issue, that needs addressing beyond consumer boycotts, even if such boycotts and particular incidents where abuse is laid bare can be used as focal points of organizing resistance. What is needed, is thus solidarity with the exploited workers, as their cause is also ours, and only together can we overcome the real causes of our problems.
In summary, what can be said about the discussion concerning sweatshops is quite simple. When put in its proper context, saying that sweatshop work is the best option available for all these people around the world is not a successful defense of sweatshops, but rather a devastating critique of the present system.
 The Economics of Happiness (2011, Grolick, Page, Norberg-Hodge)
2 thoughts on “The Context of Sweatshops”
Even assuming for the sake of argument that they’re right, would it absolutely kill these miscreants to frame it as “least bad option?” The utter glee with which “libertarians” demonstrate (all the way to “Q.E.D.” the “non-negotiability” of the “laws of economics” is the single biggest thing that turns me off to them, and is in fact the reason I consider myself an antilibertarian.
Indeed. And even working within a narrow framework of mainstream economics with all that this entails, the argument sort of falls flat once you realize that you could double the wages of these employees while affecting retail price by just a few percent. Clearly, things don’t have to be the way they are out of some profound economic necessity.
On a sidenote, in many places, the term “libertarian” has largely retained its original meaning – a synonym for anarchist, or even anarcho-communist. Thus one can also use it in a sense completely opposed to what it means today in places like the US.
Thanks for your comment!