On April 21 2013, the Rana Plaza building, an eight story factory building in Greater Dhaka collapsed, killing over a thousand workers. The factory collapsed because, quite simply, the building was not designed to be a factory. The building had been built to house offices and shops. When the building’s owner later converted the building, he added industrial sewing machines and the generators to power them, but not the additional supports necessary to ensure that the building could withstand the resulting vibrations. The day before the collapse, cracks appeared in the walls of the building and workers were sent home. But the next morning, supervisors declared the building safe and ordered workers back to work. Those who were reluctant to enter the building were threatened with a dock in pay.
The Rana Plaza building collapse is the clothing industry at its worse. But the principle that it exemplifies, that of insufficient respect for the rights and welfare of workers, is sadly not confined to such tragedies. Proportionately few factory workers die at work, but many more are put at risk, made to work long hours, denied regular breaks, prevented from joining unions and paid miserly wages. One way to describe this phenomenon is to say that workers are exploited: what they receive from employers does not constitute a fair exchange for their labour.
If clothing workers in countries like Bangladesh are exploited, then one response is to refuse to buy clothes from those countries. The alternative would be to “buy local”, i.e. from companies that produce their products in the developed countries, where workers are better paid and enjoy better protection from abusive employers. One could, for instance, buy from the US based company No Sweat Apparel that offers people a means to “support US union-workers and fight foreign sweatshops with a single click of the mouse”. Someone who supports “buying local” may accept that campaigns for better conditions in developing countries, such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Labour Behind the Label, have made moderate progress. But it will be noted that it is the opportunity to cut costs that attracts clothing companies to developing countries in the first place, so whatever progress is made will always be limited. To avoid the wrong of exploitation altogether one must avoid buying the clothes. The model here is other boycotts: boycotts of cosmetics tested on animals, boycotts of factory-farmed meat. In each case, the production of a product is thought to involve a wrong involving some form of harm that leaves people or animals worse off. Buy the product and you incentivize the harm. Boycott the product and you avoid the harm or at least avoid contributing to it.
This is, I think, the first of two common but wrong responses to the sweatshop issue. The second is that there is nothing wrong with sweatshops since sweatshops typically leave developing country workers better off. We know that sweatshops typically leave developing country workers better off since developing country workers keep choosing to work in them. They make the choice anticipating that whatever costs they must put up with in terms of long hours and bad working conditions will be worth the pay they receive. Sometimes, as the Rana Plaza collapse illustrates, the choice does not work out as anticipated. But typically it does, hence why workers keep showing up for work.
There is an element of truth in each of these responses. The truth in the first is that sweatshop production wrongs sweatshop workers. The truth in the second is that sweatshops leave workers better off. The mistake made by both is to assume that either sweatshops benefit workers or they wrong them. In fact, benefiting while wronging is exactly what exploitation is all about.
It is worth contrasting exploitation with theft. Theft is straightforward. You have something I want. I take it from you by force. You are left worse off as a result. Exploitation is more complicated. You have something I want and you are in a weaker position. I make you an offer for it that will leave you better off but is less than a fair price. Lacking any better offer, you agree to the trade. I have exploited you and therefore wronged you and you have benefited in the process.
It is true then that when we buy clothes from sweatshop sources we contribute to the exploitation of sweatshop workers. It is also true that one way to avoid so contributing is to avoid buying clothes from sweatshops and “buy local” instead. But since developing country workers typically benefit from working in sweatshops, buying local threatens to leave them worse off. If we worry about exploitation it is surely because we are worried about the workers who will be exploited. Since developing country workers are much poorer than developed country workers, it is particularly important that we do not leave developing country workers worse off. Boycotting sweatshops is thus not like boycotting cosmetics tested on animals or factory-farmed meat. Animals that are tested on or factory farmed have nothing to gain from being so treated.
It seems then that the best approach is to support campaigns for better wages and conditions despite the slow, incremental progress they make. Boycotts could play an important role in such campaigns, targeting the worst offenders in an effort to get all companies to comply with a set of basic standards. But a boycott against all companies that fail to offer workers a fair return is likely to prove too wide and too demanding to be effective at improving pay and conditions. This is why labour rights activists are generally cautious in advocating boycotts, despite what their critiques may suggest. Other means are available, whether it is pressuring companies to sign up to better conditions; protesting at shareholders meetings or inside stores; supporting the unionisation of garment workers; highlighting action initiated by workers themselves; and providing opportunities for workers to get their voices heard.
But can labour rights activists make progress by any of these alternative means? Surely the same sad logic applies: if companies are pressured to improve pay and conditions in developing countries then they will simply close down their factories and move back to developed countries. Workers will, in the end, be the losers. It is, after all, the lower pay and conditions that attracts companies to developing countries in the first place. If companies are forced to make improvements, why should they stay? (For an argument of this sort see Paul Krugman’s prominent article “In Praise of Cheap Labor” and this creative video by philosopher Matt Zwolinski, as well as the latter’s publications).
While I cannot hope to offer a full response here, let me raise two reasons to doubt the claim that campaigns for higher standards inevitably mean factory closures. First, the gap in pay and conditions between developing countries and developed countries is so large that one can make significant improvements without denying companies an incentive to stay invested in developing countries. Second, labour rights activists have already made progress. This is true in the case of Bangladesh. Since the Rana Plaza building collapse over 70 companies have signed up to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, including major brands such as Primark and Adidas. (Notably Gap have refused to sign). Universities too are taking action. Just last week, Edinburgh University announced that it will ensure that the garments it buys from Bangladesh are covered by the Accord. In Bangladesh, workers seem set for a minimum wage increase, from $38 per month to $68. (It will remain, however, the lowest minimum wage in world). These successes have not resulted in mass factory closures, nor are closures on the cards. Bangladesh is still, very much, open for business. No doubt this is why Bangladesh garment workers have come out in their thousands, often braving police charges and rubber bullets, to press for better pay and conditions. They know, better than anyone, that they are better off in work than out of it. But they also know, better than anyone, that in their work they are subject to exploitation and that this injustice is worth fighting against.