Responsibility for Sweatshop Exploitation

Sweatshops are usually small units of production that deliver to retailers and producers further down the production chain, mostly larger corporations. Sweatshops typically operate in the garment and agricultural industries, where products are labour intensive and employees require limited education. The working conditions are bad, salaries are below minimum-wage (if such exists in the country), and basic human rights are often violated. Sweatshops are typically found in developing countries, although they also exist in the United States and Europe, where they offer jobs to poor people who have no alternative work to find. The moral issue is that it is claimed that workers are being exploited. Not only does the local owner and manager of the sweatshop take an unfair

Who’s Responsible for the Supply Chain? 143 advantage of the workers’ bad situation, but corporations in the supply chain benefit from cheap sweatshop labour as well. This is Iris Marion Young’s description of a sweatshop:

The vast majority of workers are female, and often as young as thirteen or fourteen. They are often treated in dominative and abusive ways by bosses, and sexual harassment is common. Typically, they work ten- to sixteen-hour days in peak seasons; if the manufacturer is behind on an order, the workers may be forced to work through the night. They have few bathroom breaks or other opportunities for rest during their long working day. Sick leave or vacation time are generally unavailable; a worker too ill to work is often fired. Violations of the most basic health and safety standards are normal. Factories are often excessively hot with no ventilation, insufficient lighting, excessive noise, little fire-fighting equipment, blocked exits, poor sanitation, unhygienic canteens and bathrooms, and no access to clean drinking water. Typically, workers in these facilities have no freedom to organize unions to bargain collectively with their employers. Workers who complain and try to organize are typically threatened, fired, blacklisted, beaten, and even killed. Local governments often actively or passively support such anti-union activity.

(Young 2006, 108)

Judging from this description of the sweatshop, several moral wrongs can be noted. Clearly, it is not only morally wrong, but also illegal by any account committed to basic human rights, to threaten and kill workers for not complying with the management’s authority. Moreover, denying the right to unionize violates citizenship rights to gather freely in political association, and this sorts of discrimination and health threatening-working conditions are not possible to defend in any sane moral account. However, the prima facie wrongness of sweatshops has been contested as sweatshops often offer better alternatives to poor people compared to being unemployed or working in traditional sectors. In particular, the wage is often three to seven times higher compared to the alternatives (Zwolinski 2012, 163), even though it remains below a living wage, defined as the income required to meet the most basic needs (Arnold Sc Bowie 2003, 233). Furthermore, due to this advantage in working in a sweatshop, workers themselves choose to work there. Zwolinski argues that all things considered, this suggests a reason for respecting the choice of sweatshop workers by not interfering in their choice (Zwolinski 2007). However, even though this may be true if limiting one’s focus to the micro level of sweatshop exploitation, what happens locally, the choice argument and the better wage argument fare less well in the macro-con ext. The point of the social connection model is to cast light on the institutional background conditions that render thebaseline for judging sweatshops morally problematic. Although it is possible that workers freely choose the sweatshops, the constraints on the choice need not be morally acceptable. If, for instance, the wages are far below the living wage, the sweatshop wage remains morally problematic. The same goes for the other wrongs described by Young. If sweatshop workers accept that they cannot unionize or reject a command to work longer hours because the general perception in the country says these are not rights a worker has, it remains wrong to accept such working conditions. Moreover, the sweatshop owners themselves are under pressure to supply products at a low price, so they can rightfully say that they are not solely responsible for paying such low wages.

Hence, it need not be the individual sweatshop that exploits, but rather the reason for exploitation lies elsewhere, namely, in the system that supports sweatshops. The causes behind macro-level exploitation are, by nature, complex, and this is the reason why it becomes difficult to single out what the corporate responsibility is. Surely, if a corporation is engaged locally in sweatshops, it becomes liable for wrongs in the working environment. Often, firms are more closely engaged than they willingly admit. For instance, when garment factory Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed in 2013, resulting in 1129 dead workers and 2500 injured, some retailers denied responsibility, even though they used the factory as a sub-supplier (Reinecke & Donaghey 2015). There is a grey zone between direct involvement and being complicit caused by the legal definition of being responsible as being liable. Hence, the retailers may have had no direct contractual and legal responsibility for the accident at Rana Plaza, but they were morally complicit by relying on products from the site, or - to stretch the notion of complicity - they participated in an industry in Bangladesh that made it possible for such an accident to occur. Stretching corporate responsibility beyond legal liability makes it clear what Young has in mind with her social connection model and hence what political CSR theory considers the relevant notion of responsibility.

Now, what can be said to define and possibly limit this sort of political responsibility for structural injustice?

According to Jeremy Snyder, the scope of CSR necessarily grows wide if one takes complicity in sweatshop exploitation into consideration (2010, 206). However, just as individuals have other duties and limits in resources, corporations by analogy are also limited in what they can and should do to prevent sweatshop exploitation by engaging politically to change the economic and legal background conditions. Moreover, if corporations are to compensate for state failure in creating fair background conditions for workers in a country, they need to “work with other corporations to self-regulate their actions through industry-wide codes of conduct” (ibid. 207). But such collaboration suffers from a general collective action problem because what if the individual corporation stands

Who’s Responsible for the Supply Chain? 145 alone and the rest of the industry prefers to profit from the situation? In that case, the moral responsibility must be limited, and the corporation cannot be blamed for failing to change the structures.

Lisa Herzog addresses the collective action problem related to sector responsibility. Here, she finds that “[¡Individual companies can make an important difference by breaking through an implicit consensus that bans moral questions from the conversation” (Herzog 2017, 144); they might be “moral pioneers” (ibid. 145). And, according to Herzog, there are ways to overcome or mitigate the inherent collective action problem by, for instance, entering alliances with like-minded corporations to change the institutions that make exploitative sweatshops possible. This is in alignment with Young’s suggestion that responsibilities are collective and political. Young also suggests a number of parameters of reasoning about responsibility that can provide limits. And she admits that the idea that social connections, as such, bring obligations of justice “seems too enormous” without taking “our abilities and our particular circumstance” into consideration (Young 2011, 143). The first parameter is power. The more influence an organization has on structural processes, the more it becomes responsible. The second is privilege, rendering the beneficiaries of sweatshops responsible. The third is interest in promoting justice. This is obviously in the interest of the victims, the exploited workers. However, some corporations committed to selling ethically responsible products, such as fair trade, share this interest with the workers and are therefore responsible. The fourth and last parameter suggested by Young is collective ability, which asserts that an organization that commands the ability to motivate larger groups of agents, such as the stockholder organization (ibid. 147), carries more responsibility. As such, Young does not propose any moral standard or theory to limit responsibilities and instead relies on pragmatics.

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