The Ethics of Buying Clothes Produced in Sweatshops

The Ethics of Buying Clothes Produced in Sweatshops
UK student activists strip naked to protest sweatshop clothing in 2012.

International Development Week (IDW), hosted by undergraduate students of the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa, took place the week of 5 February 2018. Hundreds of Ottawa-area undergraduate students enthusiastically participated in discussions designed to fuel critical thinking in those with a passion for development. My own presentation asked them to think harder about the ethics of sweatshops in the garment industry.

Over 60 million skilled and unskilled workers — the majority of them women and children — work in mass production textile factories (or sweatshops) in the export-oriented industries of developing nations. They work in exploitative conditions — hazardous environments with low wages — while the owners of these factories in the developing nations, and the multinationals of developed nations that buy the products, make enormous profits. Advocacy groups demand that buyer countries stop importing clothes produced in such sweatshops by setting up trade barriers with the ultimate goal of shutting down the factories.

No doubt the exploitation of the poor is unethical and yes, boycotting sweatshop-produced-clothing can close down the factories, the most visible instruments of labour exploitation. But such ethical decisions should not be taken without assessing the impacts of their closure on the vulnerable groups that we are supposedly trying to protect through these boycotts.

Economically, the closure of sweatshops cuts off a major source of income for poor families in the short term, and results in the lowering of a nation’s GDP in the medium term. The ultimate impact is especially harsh on the vulnerable poor. Boycotting sweatshops, therefore, is not necessarily ethical, especially without making provisions for alternative sources of income for the poor.

Interestingly, sweatshops and clothing factories are labour-intensive industries that have served as a stage in the development of all nations since the beginning of the industrial revolution, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. At one stage in the development histories of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea (nations that have advanced from developing to developed nations in the 20th century) millions worked in sweatshops under exploitative conditions, which nonetheless provided opportunities to move out of much lower paying agricultural work. Workers in sweatshops today also earn above the poverty line and, in certain instances, earn better than developing nations’ average incomes.

Interviews from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, for which garment exports constitute a large percentage of GDP, show that factory workers, especially women, are fully conscious of their maltreatment at work, the exploitative aspects of their employment, and the suppression of their rights by factory owners, yet sweatshops remain their first choice for employment.

Employment in sweatshops provides a source of income empowerment, especially for women, who can earn more wages than in many other jobs, earning livelihoods for themselves and food, nutrition, and education for their children. They ultimately earn positions of dignity in their families and their communities as income earners, contributing to family welfare.

Women factory workers report that factory jobs are lifelines for them, not only economically but socially. In many developing nations, opportunities for employment at sweatshops have changed the social scene, with women coming out of their isolated, remote villages and working in big metropolises that offer opportunities to socialize with other workers and community members, which helps enhance their quality of life.

With respect to the ethical issues surrounding child labour and the imposition of trade sanctions on export-oriented industries such as sweatshops, the employment of children in such industries is one solution to poverty, albeit a short-term one. A very high percentage of child labourers of sweatshops and carpet factories are members of landless, very poor families. In most instances, the incomes of these children provide their families’ only support, especially in single-female-headed families.

Since children’s incomes are vital for these families, stopping child labour, without any other system in place for income generation, leaves the children and their families worse off. Since most of these children are working out of necessity, stopping child labour in factories also pushes children to less desirable, more hazardous work, including child prostitution. In this light, it becomes unethical to boycott sweatshops.

Advocates of trade sanctions argue that more children will attend school if child labour can be stopped by closing down factories. However, no clear causal link between child labour in export-oriented industries and school attendance has yet been established. In fact, research shows that the longstanding tradition of children working at home (i.e., agriculture and household duties) keeps children out of school.

A national survey in India shows that 80% of girls help with domestic work and 54% stay home to take care of their younger siblings. Over 75% of boys help with farm work and 25% also help with domestic work. This study, and several others, clearly shows that it is not employment in export-oriented industries that keeps most children from attending schools, so closure of sweatshops alone is unlikely to promote school attendance.

In short, trade sanctions will not affect a significant portion of child workers in the world. Out of 250 million child workers globally, only 12% (15 million) work in export-oriented industries. They also earn higher wages than the 88% involved in domestic or agricultural work. In this scenario, trade sanctions will have only a negligible impact on the global problem of child workers and their lack of educational opportunities.

Of course, advocacy and actions to improve working conditions, stop the exploitation of workers, and the inequities and human rights violations associated with sweatshops, must remain priorities provided the poor and the vulnerable, who we are trying to protect, are not adversely affected as we satisfy notions of our own moral superiority.

For more information on this issue, see the Clean Clothes Campaign, Labour Behind the Label, the Six Items Challenge, which runs from 14 February to 29 March 2018, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) supported HERproject, and the UK government’s case study on the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh.

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