Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Sweatshops lesser of two evils

By Matthew Lowe

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There’s a constellation of political concepts that revolve around capitalism. There are many ways individuals have come to understand capitalism. Some will tell you that it’s the economic transcription of the “American Dream.” Yet, others will also tell you that it’s what is single-handedly destroying America. At the end of the day, these are just interpretations of what is nothing more or less than privatization.

Capitalism grants power to the people by allowing for individuals and organizations to have control of their financial prosperity rather than a system, which would rely on state intervention, such as socialism. It is because of that “power of the people” dynamic that many Americans (mostly financial conservatives) have come to parallel capitalism and democracy. After all, democracy relies on the idea that people can come together and vote to determine who has the power.

In the same regard, people can come together and buy certain corporations into dominance – take for example, Apple Inc.

When you walk into a lecture hall, a resounding majority of white, glowing apples will take up your field of view. Still, the formula for dismantling these institutions of power should be the same as well. If we vote for one president over another, a voice will forever be silenced by the megaphone we’ll have handed to whoever was elected.

Or, in an extreme circumstance, if no one votes, the political system can crash in on itself – it would be a wide scale political boycott. And so, in relying on Apple to solely provide us with our MP3 players, laptops, etc., we drown out the attempts of other competing companies. And following with the formula, in order to remove power, we need only stop buying Apple products. But what’s the point?

Those in power tend to be the ones who make the decisions for everyone else, but the concept that  gets lost along the way is that people have the power to shift power compositions. This is not only the case on a national level, however. As previously stated, capitalism is simply an exercise of economic privatization.

Because individuals have power over finances as opposed to the states, there is more room for exploitation with the intent of maximizing profits. On a global level, neoliberalism takes the place of capitalism in that it attempts to maximize profits but also allow for equal opportunities through its ability to be stopped by people.

Now, Apple aside, let’s look at another major household name like Nike. For as long as I can remember, there’s always been a dissonance among the American people regarding Nike. On the one hand, Nike has been accused of using sweatshops in order to maximize its profits by distributing paychecks to laborers that fall well under what would be considered to be living wages.

On the other hand, Nike makes awesome sneakers that are stylish and recognizable from a mile way through their signature “swoosh” logo. Therefore, when consumers are staring at the newest Air Jordan’s on the shelf, contemplating their ethical obligations, they tend to “Just Do It” and sign a petition or something to compensate for their misdeed. But the question we really have to ask ourselves is: “Is it really a misdeed?”

When a company seeks to skyrocket its profit potential, it hunts down the cheapest sources of labor. At first, factories in the United States relied on American citizens. Prior to  legislation catching up with the speed of the industrial revolution, these factories relied on child labor and payment outside the parameters of minimum wages. Then, once labor laws were made, corporations sought out alternatives, such as  dependence on illegal immigration.

Therefore, any instance in which laws cannot come to the aid of a labor source will result in what some may refer to as exploitation. When it comes to the complexities of corporate affairs and international law, there are enough gray areas to allow for ethical considerations to slip under the radar, hence the tendency for companies to now search overseas for their work force. Seeing the potential negative implications of this, Americans tend to protest vehemently against sweatshops, but in reality, sweatshops aren’t that bad.

At the end of the day, foreign countries that permit sweatshops to exist and contribute to the American economy tend to be less focused on reaching the ethical standards of angry, Nike-wearing kids. As pointed out by Walter Williams, an economics professor at George Mason University, the alternatives to sweatshops tend to be much worse.

Really, why should Nike choose not to maximize its profits? And more importantly, how could the U.S. even attempt to push for positive change? It’s worth noting that in 1993, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin attempted to stop imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. The result of this action was far from positive. In one instance, a factory in Bangladesh had to lay off 50,000 children and in doing so, not only was money no longer made available to feed the families of these children but also the alternative ended up being to rely on prostitution.

One thing democracy and instances of global capitalization (or, neoliberal economics) will always have in common is that they rely on choosing the lesser of two evils. Never will there be a situation in which a presidential candidate boasts all of the qualities we look for in a leader. Similarly, there will seldom be scenarios in which neoliberalism produces entirely agreeable circumstances. Call me selfish, but if you were to ask me, I will always vote for the candidate that has my interests in mind. And if it were between sweatshops and child prostitution, I would have to go with the opportunity to feed families through labor conditions that are less than perfect than leaving children to suffer fates that include starvation and forced sexual encounters.

There’s nothing really wrong with a corporation maximizing its profits and giving labor opportunities to countries that would not otherwise provide for their citizens. Clearly, if you boycott companies that utilize sweatshops, you’re not only taking power from them but you’re also redistributing it to tyrants.

Matthew R. Lowe is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]



10 Responses to “Sweatshops lesser of two evils”

  1. David Hunt '90 on April 3rd, 2012 5:38 am

    Most countries that have “sweatshops” see people FLOCKING to them for work. Because, as Lowe points out, the alternatives are far, far worse.

    Am I justifying abuse, or sexual predation? No. But to people in, say, Thailand, $5 a day is real money, far more than they would make otherwise.


  2. Invisible Backhand on April 3rd, 2012 6:19 am

    “One thing democracy and instances of global capitalization (or, neoliberal economics) will always have in common is that they rely on choosing the lesser of two evils.”

    either/or fallacy


  3. UMass Hates Me on April 3rd, 2012 11:53 am

    Spot on, Matt. The United States was once the same way as China is now. With time, China will develop an affluent middle class that will demand more from their government in the realm of workplace rights. Until then, sweat shops generally pay better and provide a relatively less dangerous workplace. Although a sweat shop is not the ultimate ideal, it is the ideal reality for many right now. I’m not sure if this is totally accurate, but I believe roughly 90% of the Chinese population still lives in poor conditions with a low standard of living. As a result, children have to work to help support their family. Sweat shops provide enough for many families to get by and there are much worse alternatives Again, this is not what China will ultimately be, but for now it works. The transformation will be a decades-long, if not century-long process. And, ao matter what we as Americans demand, the change will come from within China.


  4. hmm on April 3rd, 2012 4:23 pm

    Yet another tedious libertarian rant from some politically minded spoiled brat at Isenberg. If you read any history instead of just whatever right-wing propaganda you’re steeped in you’d know that the kind of no holds barred, laissez faire capitalism with no regulation or protections that you idealize as some kind of utopia was already the prominent form of capitalist society in the 19th century, with disastrous results. Revolutions and general strikes across the world were the result which in turn led to the adoption of socialistic elements into our government. I’d also like to suggest that all libertarian students should reject government aid and government-backed loans for their education, if you don’t believe in it don’t use it, save a few bucks for someone who needs it.


  5. Brian on April 3rd, 2012 10:32 pm

    First of all, capitalism does not provide “power to the people.” Capitalism gives power to individuals, yes, but – this is the important part – it gives some individuals FAR more power than others. In democracy, every person has one vote. In capitalism, you “vote” with your money, so the number of “votes” you have depends on how much money you have. Therefore, in capitalism, some people have millions of times more “votes” than others.


  6. Brian on April 3rd, 2012 10:40 pm

    Second of all, sweatshops are NOT, in fact, better than the alternative, because there is more than one alternative! Maybe in some cases, sweatshops are better than what would happen if the sweatshops disappeared and everything else remained the same. For example, like you said, in a country where children are forced to work to survive, working in a sweatshop may be better than working as a prostitute.
    But why are those children being forced to work to survive in the first place? Why must they choose between two horrific options (sweatshops or prostitution), instead of having a third option available?
    Most “poor” countries are not really poor – they just have a tiny minority of extremely rich people who control all the wealth. Forbes magazine reported last year that 2 of the top 10 richest people in the world are from India. And one is from China. Just these three people alone (not counting all the other Indian and Chinese billionaires) have enough wealth to feed tens of millions of children.


  7. Matthew Lowe on April 4th, 2012 6:53 pm

    I appreciate all of the feedback. Just to put it out there though, I’m not a student in ISOM… I’m actually an English major 🙂


  8. Angela MacGray on April 10th, 2012 9:23 pm

    You didn’t touch upon fair trade items. THAT is a far better alternative. We have to realize that commodities cost far more than we’ve been paying. Maybe then we can get ourselves out of this consumer-based chaos society that is essentially making everyone miserable.


  9. Sam on April 19th, 2012 1:01 am

    Good column. People often think that corporations that run sweatshops should simply start putting some American style social regulations in their own factories. They don’t realize that the lack of regulations is the reason why it makes sense to build factories in the first place. If we had worldwide standards for sweatshops, all the factories would just move back here, as our population is much better educated. “But that’s great! More jobs for Americans!” But now the products that we buy are more expensive, and that Indonesian family who worked and ate well everyday will have to “work” (I say that lightly since it’s not always actual employment) in much worse conditions for much less money. Begging, prostitution, farming (pays less and is harder than a sweatshop). These are the alternatives they face, and that’s the reason people flock to sweatshops in developing countries. Sweatshops may not look that nice to us, but this is how countries move up the economic ladder. The Chinese have enjoyed explosive growth for the past few decades, and consequently the pay and living standards of the Chinese are much better than in _______ (insert destitute developing African country).


  10. lwm on April 27th, 2012 6:45 am

    I’m a former professor who read your article out of interest in the subject matter. I strongly recommend you read a small book by Messrs. Strunk and White. It is titled The Elements of Style.

    Your writing could be more concise and focused, and you could make a more powerful statement of your beliefs in fewer words. Your first paragraph fails to foreshadow your central thesis (which is not easily identified). Indeed, it is hard to understand. For instance, what is an “economic transcription”? It would be better to make your point first.

    Why not just start with the premise that sweatshops are better than the alternative in many foreign countries, and that middle America often fails to understand how intended help can often result in hurt? Sweatshops of course would be a fine example, and you might even include more. The debacle of the USA’s supplying seed grain coated with a fungicide containing mercury to a third-world nation (actually happened about 40 years ago) is apposite too; villagers who did not understand the grain was not for baking but only for seed saw many of its residents contract pitiably severe mercury poisoning. (Of course their own government failed them too.)

    How else have we blundered in misguided attempts to help?


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