A recent study of Ethiopian workers released last week by the US National Bureau of Economics Research found “sweatshops” were unpleasant, risky, and paid even less than self-employment in the informal sector. But, the researchers also found, countries were still better off than not having those jobs at all. As Michael J. Coren of Quartz writes,
By encouraging mass hiring in the economy, even low-wage factories could lift everyone’s wages. Fewer desperate workers competing for jobs meant employers must pay more for labor, argue economists Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago and Stefan Dercon of Oxford University in the latest study. But countries could ensure those factories treated their workers more fairly, and remove barriers for entrepreneurs building their businesses.
“More manufacturing firms is a good thing,” said Blattman in an interview. “This is going to happen. This is the development process in most countries. We shouldn’t sugar coat it.”
I think that’s the right approach: Don’t “sugar coat” the hardships such work entails—but don’t ban sweatshops either.
A “sweatshop” is the pejorative term for a workplace that has working conditions those of us in the West deem socially unacceptable. Because of Western laws and norms, sweatshops are now found mostly in developing countries.
To understand the defense of sweatshops requires recognizing that it is not a defense of deplorable living or working conditions. In fact, a moral defense of sweatshops is based on limiting or ending deplorable living or working conditions. The disagreement centers around how we go about that task of pursuing justice.
Several years ago Steven Garber wrote an essay in which he explained the concept of “proximate justice”:
Proximate justice realizes that something is better than nothing. It allows us to make peace with some justice, some mercy, all the while realizing that it will only be in the new heaven and new earth that we find all our longings finally fulfilled, that we will see all of God’s demands finally met. It is only then and there we will see all of the conditions for human flourishing finally in place, socially, economically, and politically.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from proximate justice is absolute justice, the idea that we should never settle for “some” justice but must always seek, as a matter of duty, the maximal amount of justice. The absolute justice advocate would say that the working conditions in sweatshops are unacceptable—and the proximate justice advocate would agree. But the proximate justice advocate would ask, “What are the alternatives?” Invariably, the absolute justice advocate’s preference is either unworkable, unrealistic, or would lead to worse living conditions for the sweatshop worker.
Proximate justice requires that we don’t improve people’s lives or bring them justice by making their lives worse. As Benjamin Powell says, “Because sweatshops are better than the available alternatives, any reforms aimed at improving the lives of workers in sweatshops must not jeopardize the jobs that they already have.”
The reality is that we live in a sinful world, and people don’t always know what is best for themselves. However, in many cases—such as employment—individuals do have relevant information about their situation and their preferences that the rest of us do not have. We should certainly do our part in advocating just working conditions for every worker. But let’s not let our noble attempts to do justice hinder workers from choosing goods that lead to their flourishing.