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Published on 25th July 2019

The Debate on Sweatshops

A sweatshop is a factory that generally produces clothing which usually makes employees work long hours with low wages in working conditions that are extremely unsafe and hazardous. Sweatshops were first introduced to the world through the Industrial Revolution as a result of the economy developing at an alarming rate and there being a need for jobs. Many people believe sweatshops are harmful to economies and the people living in them, however, this is untrue, as sweatshops are vital to economic development. They help pull third-world countries out of poverty by providing jobs which increases the standard of living and the overall economic situation, and they help the first-world countries because they can also provide jobs to the people there and offer products at a reduced rate.

Before the Industrial Revolution, yarn spinning was done by hand in people’s homes. A machine was designed in 1767 which could spin yarn faster, and so textile factories were formed around these machines. The businesses purchased the machines to make clothing faster, and then employed huge numbers of people to operate the machines and perform other tasks. These factories were the world’s first sweatshops. They were a part of the developing economy in Britain because companies wanted to generate products faster, and the factories were able to employ lots of people who were able to assist in making the garments quickly. There was also demand for jobs, and sweatshops had plenty on offer because there were so many different tasks available within the factories. “The rural folk, much like today's Third World sweatshop workers, were attracted by the opportunity to earn higher wages than they could elsewhere”, so they flocked to the cities to try and obtain jobs despite the terrible working conditions. Powell went on to say that sweatshops will cease to exist as industrialisation grows because as they emerge, they become part of the process which leads to their own eradication. This means that sweatshops are vital to economies because people want the jobs on offer to improve their lives, and this grows the economy, leading to a greater standard of living and higher wages. After this, people are then able to leave the factories and get better jobs which slowly puts sweatshops out of business and eventually they will no longer be necessary in that country.

It may not appear so at first, but there are some advantages to sweatshops with the main one being the positive impact it has on economic development. Benjamin Powell claims that sweatshops have changed the lives of people and brought around economic development because people are able to get a job, provide for their family and help the economy flourish. Governments have also now began enforcing codes of labour practises, meaning that businesses must abide by a certain standard of conditions and regulations in regard to their works. Through these codes, workers in sweatshops have said they experienced improved health and safety around the workplace, while also finding their hours were being reduced. The health and safety codes involve companies having clear procedures on how to complete a task to avoid danger, ensure the workspace is clean, have enough light, and guarantee employees are getting breaks. If employees can see clearly what they have to do, they will complete the task effectively and efficiently. They will also feel safer at work and this leads to an increase in their performance levels meaning businesses get products out faster and earn more revenue. Businesses sometimes allow their employees to negotiate better pay and work conditions, and when they do this, they “show respect for the worker’s voluntary choice to work while also contributing to economic progress”. In simpler terms, this means that businesses ensure their employees happiness by giving them the option to improve their work lives, which results in them working harder and helping improve the economy. Any improvement in employees working conditions or pay can make a big difference in their lives as they will not get sick from an unclean workspace and they can buy food and resources for their family. Benjamin Ferguson and Florian Ostmann claim that having sweatshops in poor and evolving countries has considerably reduced the overall global poverty, making it a big contributor to economic development. If people are able to find work, they can improve their lives and living standards, and the economy around them will prosper, which ultimately pulls the country out of poverty.

On the other hand, there are some serious downsides and problems with sweatshops. Workers are often exploited and made to work in terrible conditions with very little compensation. This is because their employers want to keep the majority of the money for themselves, and so do not invest in better working conditions or in paying their employees. Andras Miklos believes that any type of slavery is wrong, even if you can justify it. Many people see sweatshop employment as slavery because the workers are forced to work and are punished if they are unable to. They also often live in poverty and have little money or possessions of their own. Some try and defend sweatshops by saying they provide jobs, but they seem to forget that these people do not generally have many options for work. If someone has to choose a job which has dangerous outcomes because there are no other alternative, then they are still being forced to labor because there is no choice, they must find work. This leads to the economy growing, but the worker suffering. Many of the labourers also live in the sweatshops, with their living conditions being just as dirty as their work conditions. As Jill Esbenshade points out, workers are often divided up into smaller areas where they encounter a language barrier and are isolated from the people they know. All these examples showcase the downsides to sweatshops, from the terrible working conditions to the low pay. It also shows, however, that they are an inevitable part of economic development because people in poor countries need work and can find this at a sweatshop. If people do not work in sweatshops then the economy in that country will not be able to grow, but this type of work is vital to help boost the economy which brings around the end of sweatshops and even bigger economic expansion.

Due to the many issues in sweatshops, people were becoming concerned and so the Millennium Development Goals were created. The document consisted of eight goals which 189 countries agreed to, to try and eradicate poverty and improve people’s lives. Within the goals, one of them falls in line with poor working condition and how to eliminate them. It states that the countries involved want to remove poverty and hunger across the world and ensure there are employment opportunities with decent working conditions. To accomplish this goal, the economy needs to evolve so that there are more job options for workers with better pay and working conditions. Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Desmond McNeill believe that when the world leaders adopted the Millennium Goals, they fully devoted themselves to end poverty and also “set concrete, time bound, and quantitative targets”, meaning that they have taken on the responsibility of eliminating poverty across the globe. However, the issue with the goals is that they were created for a global scale. They do not take into consideration that countries are not equal in terms of the number of people, the size of the land, the resources they have, and the standard of living. Fukuda-Parr and McNeill say this means that goals often have a “one-size-fits-all” approach. The problem with this approach is that the goal might be to improve the living standards worldwide, but for third-world countries who do not possess the same resources as first-world countries, they might be able to improve the living standards in comparison to what they were beforehand, but they will still not be able to raise them to the same level as the first-world countries. However, with the Millennium Development Goals in play, this means that there is a greater chance that countries will be able to come out of poverty. This is due to the fact that the goals do not ban sweatshops, because they are essential in today’s world to expand economies and help people get work.

As economies across the world slowly developing, they need sweatshops to keep people labouring and earning money to improve the standard of living and working. The piece examined the advantages and disadvantages of sweatshops which showed why they are so important to developing economies. Without them, there would be a higher level of unemployment and economies would not be able to develop to compete with other nations. Sweatshops are vital to countries and their economic development as they are the means to their own end. Without them, first-world countries would be struggling to produce all the products they want and need, the products they currently buy from sweatshops. For third-world countries, they would be in greater poverty which they would not be able to get out of, because they would not be able to offer jobs which help improve the standard of living and help the economy flourish.


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NOTE: This article was written based on an assignment I did for my university unit Global Capitalism & Power