The debate over sweatshops in developing countries conjures images of young children working in dangerous factories for pennies a day and large rooms packed with women sewing clothes until their fingers are raw. As many people argue, it is immoral for large corporations to have their products produced by these sweatshops because it makes a profit by means of near-slavery. Employees are often paid very low wages. For example, Nike came under criticism in 1992 for purchasing from an Indonesian supplier that paid its employees $1.03 a day. Sweatshop employees also often work in conditions with virtually no safety standards, and in many cases are children. What is more, they often have unreasonable demands placed upon them and, if they want to keep the only job they can find, must work unreasonable hours to meet those demands. For these reasons, many argue that it is immoral for a company to make use of sweatshops and perhaps for consumers to buy products from the companies that do.
On the other hand, many argue that “sweatshops” are actually good for the employees that work at them, the companies that support them, and the consumers who can buy cheaper products because of them. Supporters point to the dire conditions many are living in, particularly in the developing countries where sweatshops are likely to be created. In these communities, sweatshops are warmly welcomed as a path out of extreme poverty. If this choice is between scavenging for food in garbage dumps and working for very low wages, the choice is obvious. What is more, if employees were paid more, sweatshops could not employee as many people. Thus, sweatshops are able to benefit more people than the alternative.
Of course, just because those in poverty would choose to work in sweatshops does not mean that it is morally permissible to make use of them. As an analogy, suppose that you are kidnapped by someone who wants to kill you. I am an opportunistic capitalist and see that it would be quite profitable for me to cut a deal with your captor to buy you and make you my slave. Given the choice, you may prefer slavery to death. Nonetheless, slavery is immoral. In making you my slave, I am using you as a mere means to achieve my own ends. Your desperate situation makes purchasing you possible and I am more than happy to take advantage of it.
It seems that Kant’s distinction between using a person as a mere means (e.g. as a slave) and simultaneously using someone as a means and respecting that person as an end (e.g. asking a friend for a favor) would be helpful in the case of sweatshops. The typical employment situation is an example of using a person as a means and an end because the employee makes a free agreement to exchange labor for pay. Thus, the free choice of the employee is respected; he or she is treated as another rational human being capable of make choices. The case of slavery is clearly the opposite. Even when the slave might choose slavery over an even worse alternative, the behavior still involves using the slave as a mere means because he or she is not treated as a person capable of making free choices. In the example above, your freedom is compromised because you quite literally “have a gun to your head.”
Sweatshops fall somewhere in between the typical employment situation and slavery. Although sweatshops vary quite dramatically from one another, opponents typically point out a number of principles that every employer should uphold: (a) a “living wage,” (b) bans on child labor, (c) international safety and health standards, etc. I argue, however, that employers can treat their employees as rational human beings with free choice without necessarily meeting these standards.
Must an employer pay each employee a “living wage” in order to treat them as ends? One way of defining “living wage” is to calculate the cost of one’s basic needs, including the minimum dietary requirement of calories, in the local economy. A living wage is one that allows the employee to pay for these basic needs. Although paying employees a living wage would be one way of treating others as ends in themselves, it is not the only way. It is not necessarily the responsibility of corporations to provide all employees with their basic needs. Other entities such as the local government or international organizations are also responsible for meeting those needs. If I hire a teenager to rake my lawn, I should not have to consider if my payment to him is enough to meet his basic needs. What should concern me is whether I am treating the teenager as a rational human being whose free choice is respected. In the same way, companies should ask whether or not the employees are less than free when they choose to work for a certain wage. Certainly, there is a point where a wage is so low it could only have been agreed upon by a less-than-free employee. There is not much difference, for example, between a slave and someone who works for $0.01 a day. Nonetheless, it is not clear that a living wage is the relevant point. Unfortunately, the distinction between treating someone as a mere means and treating someone as a means and an end is not as precise as we would like it to be. Still, it is possible for an individual to freely choose to work for less than a living wage because it is a good opportunity to improve his or her situation, although it may involve working at some odd jobs to make ends meet. Thus, in some circumstances, it may be morally permissible for a company to pay less than a living wage, but it is not necessarily morally permissible to pay an employee any amount to which the employee agrees.
Similar criteria can be applied to other concerns of sweatshops such as child labor and safety regulations. Although there is a point where employing a child is immoral (e.g. hiring 7-year olds to work in dangerous factories), that point should not arbitrarily be drawn at 15 or 16 as it is in the United States. If a child of 13 or 14 can freely choose to work to help his or her family and that child is not otherwise taken advantage of by being paid drastically low wages or by being coerced into performing unsafe tasks, it should be permitted. In the case of safety standards, it certainly is unjust to take advantage of the desperate circumstances of one’s employees by cutting out as many safety precautions as possible. In these cases, employees often do not have the option to quit and find another job so they are forced to put up with tremendous health risks. This is not to say that the same safety standards in use in the United States should apply to everyone. Although there are some standards by which “sweatshops” should be measured, those standards are often difficult to quantify and do not always match our own customary standards.
What should matter is that people are not used as “tools” or near-slaves to achieve the goals of the corporations they work for. In the worst cases, employees are forced to sleep at work because they have to stay so late to complete their quotas that they have no time to go home or employees are not permitted to leave without being fired, even for serious medical reasons. In these cases, employees are clearly being used as a mere means and not provided with the respect that all of humanity deserves. In other cases, sweatshops meet some standard for treating people as rational and free (i.e. as ends in themselves), although they may not meet the same standards present in the United States. In these cases, “sweatshops” provide a great opportunity for their employees to choose a path out of poverty. These sweatshops are not really sweatshops at all.