Exploitation and Sweatshop Labor: Perspectives and Issues

Business Ethics Quarterly 20 (2):187-213 (2010)
Abstract
In this review, I survey theoretical accounts of exploitation in business, chiefly through the example of low wage or sweatshop labor. This labor is associated with wages that fall below a living wage standard and include long working hours. Labor of this kind is often described as self-evidently exploitative and immoral (Van Natta 1995). But for those who defend sweatshop labor as the first rung on a ladder toward greater economic development, the charge that sweatshop labor is self-evidently exploitative fails adequately to explain the nature of the alleged wrongdoing. While all sides might agree that poor working conditions are unfortunate and undesirable, defenders of sweatshop labor argue that they provide the best available employment alternative for some workers and the best chance at economic development for many low and middle income countries (LMICs). Some defenders of sweatshop labor even embrace the label of exploitation. <br><br>Unless there is a clear, widely understood account by which exploitation is a moral wrong, then charging a practice as exploitative will do little to advance debates over whether and why a practice is morally problematic. A considerable body of work has been developed applying a growing literature on exploitation to sweatshop labor. While many forms of moral wrong are associated with sweatshop labor, I will focus specifically on the worry that low wages allow relatively wealthy employers wrongfully to take advantage of or gain from relatively poor workers, especially in LMICs. In particular, I will focus on instances of alleged exploitation in employment relationships that are voluntary and mutually beneficial. I have two reasons for doing so. First, by restricting this review to voluntary and mutually beneficial instances of exploitation, I can isolate the moral wrong of exploitation from other moral wrongs, especially the wrongs of coercion and outright harms to workers. Second, the focus on mutually beneficial and voluntary relationships will allow for arguments that sweatshop labor is not only not exploitative, but is a morally praiseworthy means of helping to encourage economic growth in poor areas of the world and to provide jobs that pay better and are more stable than any existing alternatives.<br><br>In this review, I aim to accomplish three goals. First, I will provide an overview of the many different uses of the charge of exploitation in business practice through an examination of the uses of the term in the literature on sweatshop labor. While it is often not clear what kind of moral wrong is assumed to take place when the charge of exploitation is used, I will demonstrate that many distinct types of exploitation, connected to distinct moral wrongs, are used in the literature on sweatshop labor and elsewhere in business ethics. Specifically, I will identify two broad categories of exploitation—exploitation as unfairness and exploitation as the mere use of others—with subgroups under each main category of exploitation. Second, I will discuss which of these senses of exploitation are defensible as identifying clear moral wrongs that take place in the context of business and, specifically, sweatshop labor. As I will argue, not all uses of the charge of exploitation are capable of persuasively identifying clear moral wrongs. Moreover, there is not a single, clear type of exploitation that takes place in business but, rather, several distinct forms. Third, I will apply the lessons learned from my exploration of exploitation in sweatshop labor to other specific areas of business. As I will argue, there are multiple viable models of exploitation in the sweatshop literature that can illuminate exploitative practices of relatively well compensated employees, customers, suppliers, and entire communities. <br><br>While discussions of theories of exploitation tend to argue for a single, correct account of this moral wrong, my review of the literature on exploitation in sweatshop labor supports the conclusion that there are multiple defensible accounts of the moral wrong of exploitation. For this reason, those who would charge that a relationship is exploitative should specify the form of exploitation that they believe is taking place.
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