Yesterday, when I walked into my international trade seminar I was amazed at hearing the perspectives of the diverse student body who hailed from the western countries. The topic under discussion was ‘sweatshops.’ The word may appear new to many of the readers but it is a very core and contested issue in the global economy. “Sweatshop’ is the name given to the factories and workshops in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh among other developing countries churning out high quality products for the west.
Their products are used by brands such as Adidas, Nike, H&M, Marks & Spencer amongst many other high street fashion and sports retailers. These sweatshops make all the goods that are sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars in the West for a fraction of the cost. The reason why economists have dubbed them as sweatshops is due to poor working conditions, low safety standards, no health precautions, child labor, abysmally low wages and exploitation in these factories. So a normative question of morality in economics rises and forces people to think!
Compare for a quick understanding, a Levis 501 Jeans would be available in London for 70 Pounds but the average salary of a worker producing these jeans would be hardly 50$ a month. A similar situation exists in all the sweatshop factories that are built in the developing economies. But there are some unanswered questions. Is it fair? Is it fair in conjunction with the abysmal working conditions? Is it fair if child labor or coercion is used in regard to the labor?
Only last year, a fire in a Karachi textile factory killed over 250 workers and injured many others as well. The factory was producing stocks for a high street retail fashion outlet in the Europe. It is events such as these, which force us to consider whether sweatshops have a right to exist.
Economically speaking these sweatshops are crucial to the economies of countries like Pakistan and are a step towards economic development. We not only need the entrepreneurship opportunities that these sweatshops provide but also the employment for the labor force, foreign investment, increase in exports and of course infrastructure.
As far as the moral question is concerned, there are varying and contested perspectives. I was thoroughly amazed at hearing a moralistic view from many of the people here. They seem to have an opinion generally that sweatshops are something that is morally wrong, exploitative and negate human rights. Although not all people would have these opinions in the West, and there are academicians who have labeled it as ‘force for the good’.
Amazingly, what perplexed me most was the fact, that people who have never experienced life in the developing world especially in Pakistan were making assumptions about such issues. We in Pakistan live under constant threat of terrorism, power outages, political turmoil and economic instability. Such moralistic views would be the least of our concerns on one hand. On the other what would we prefer; thousands of unemployed people, street children, homeless souls, poor beggars and criminals roaming on streets or people working in sweatshops and making a living for themselves.
The main question here is that westerners almost have no right to go and discuss any economic or social aspect of our society on assumptions. Unless and until they have done sufficient research, academic study and have seen the life in our part of the world, only then can they make claims about such topics. In fact stereotyping sweatshops as morally wrong is not right. The term is derogatory and it should not be used. Rather than commenting on sweatshops, the attention of the high street fashion companies in the West should be drawn towards making use of these sweatshops that provides low labor costs and earn billions of dollars in return.
Instead of turning the International Labour Organisation to pressurize Pakistani government to stop child labor in Sialkot, these multi-billion dollar firms should give parts of their profits to improve working conditions in sweatshops and help the workforce.