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Hey, been a while since I posted here.

It's the consensus amongst effective altruists that purchasing from sweatshops is one of the best ways to help the global poor and alleviate their poverty (as is thoroughly discussed in MacAskill's book Doing Good Better). That of course isn't to say there aren't any issues with them, such as environmental concerns, but as far as overall consequences are concerned, they are ultimately a net positive by raising living standards, and improving areas such as gender equality and access to education.

I'm sure this question has been asked before here (though I haven't been able to find a thread about it here), and it might just be my experience, but does anyone have a reason as to why the idea that sweatshops are a net good is met with such hostility?

While in my experience many effective altruism ideas I have tried to tell others have all been met with some level of resistance (only giving to effective charities, reducing consumption of animal products, even voting), I've had plenty of luck convincing people of these concepts, likely because they aren't egregious on the surface, and seem like things everyone should get on board with, since there is some intuitive understanding of these things being good. However, the idea that has been met with the most amount of hostility I've noticed is the idea that sweatshops are net positive. Even if I were to provide them with sufficient evidence to make the case, it still isn't viewed very positively.

My speculation is that, even if you were to provide plenty of evidence and reasoning, and even anecdotes to boot, people will still be resistant to this idea because it still feels wrong. It feels wrong to be giving money to an industry that has such poor conditions and (at least by first-world country standards) terrible pay. And yet, given all the evidence, and the fact that the workers are in the sweatshops rather than other jobs that are available to them, this is completely irrational. It may also be due to the fact that we've been led to believe that they're harmful since we were young (I recall in seventh grade a class time where our teacher told us how sweatshops were harmful and that we should be buying domestic products).

Is my speculation accurate? Or is there something else at play? It would be helpful to know for sure, since that would certainly make it easier to understand their position better, so as to be able to convince them of the benefits of sweatshops.

Thanks for any and all answers.




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There's a small philosophical literature on the ethics of sweatshops. There are some libertarian type people who defend basically the view you describe, that if people voluntarily work at these places, they must represent their best option, so sweatshops can't be morally wrong. This paper is representative of that view: https://philpapers.org/rec/ZWOSCA-2

Then there are people who try to argue that sweatshop labor really is wrong nonetheless. One idea is basically Kantian -- sweatshop owners treat their employees as a mere means to an end, which is wrong. Another idea is that sweatshop workers are wrongfully exploited. For instance, lots of people have the intuition that in a voluntary exchange, one party shouldn't use their bargaining power to reap all the gains from the trade. I.e. they think there is a "fair price" where buyer and seller both get an equitable share of the benefits.

Just for illustration, imagine I have an old Camaro that I'm willing to sell for $5,000. You're willing to buy it for up to $100,000. If I know you desperately need it, and I negotiate you up to $99,999, then I'm getting almost all the benefits from the trade (you are one dollar away from being indifferent about the exchange). Lots of people think that's wrong. This might be the intuition behind thinking price gouging is wrong, too.

So you can argue that sweatshops are basically similar (although that's an interesting empirical question). Maybe sweatshop laborers are just barely better off than their next best option, while the owners are profiting a huge amount from their labor. People might think that's exploitative, and that for things to be equitable both parties need to get a reasonable cut of the benefits from the exchange. This paper has some more discussion you might find interesting: https://philpapers.org/rec/MAYSEA

I think I understand what you're saying, so I think the best response to that deontological thinking is to explain how use does not equate to abuse. Similar to how many animal rights advocates make the mistake of thinking that using animals for something is inherently bad, that way of thinking completely ignores the consequences of the actions. The workers are benefitting as well.

This article snippet explains it well:


Those papers do seem interesting to look into, I'll read 'em when I get the chance.

I slightly cringe when people lead with the “sweatshops are great” thing. I mostly* agree with the point, but it can seem like a combination of

  1. Self serving motivation
  2. Trying to “own the libs”/make a rhetorical point rather than doing the most good

*I also have some sympathy for the fair trade-ish argument that consumers could use their bargaining power/government negotiating trade deals … that could give lead to better pay for the poorest workers in the world.

So yeah, better to buy from sweatshops in India than buying American… but maybe pressure from the anti sweatshop movement could induce big companies to pay the Indian workers a little bit more. (At least it seems possible, I’m not saying it will necessarily work.)

There could be issues of informed consent in some cases, because workers may not be aware of the health risks posed by particular sweatshop work. Some sweatshops may use forced labour. In both cases, workers may not have come to a well-informed judgement that it's the best among available options, or they may come to decide against it but can't leave (because of forced labour).

I don't know how common these are or how much they figure into the popular opposition to sweatshops, though. I think it's more the impression of exploitation and generally harsh working conditions, especially with child labour, even if workers take the work on voluntarily for good reason.

Whether sweatshops are good and whether we should buy from them are two different questions. I think it's perfectly consistent to say sweatshops are terrible, but boycotting sweatshops only makes things work. Like some of the other comments have said, sweatshops are exploitative, sweatshop workers are dehumanized, and informed consent is a serious issue, to put it mildly (I've read about young girls essentially forced by their families into multi-year contracts that they cannot escape from, in order to pay off family debts). People who reject the idea that sweatshops are "good" or even a "net positive" aren't totally wrong -- in a genuinely good society there should not be any sweatshops. 

That said, buying from a local company that makes you feel good does not do anything to help the sweatshop workers. At the end of the day, saying we should boycott sweatshops is saying we should put the workers out of business, and saying we should buy locally means we should keep our wealth within our wealthy communities.  Buying locally is a self-centered solution because it focuses on alleviating the feeling of guilt at benefitting from exploitation of the poor.  But it's probably not the right response for someone genuinely seeking to benefit those poor.  

Sweatshops are probably a "net positive" compared to buying locally, but they are not a "net positive" compared to factories that treat their workers well and share the profits fairly. People may be put off by the framing of sweat shops as "good" because it sounds like saying that the exploitation of poor workers is desirable. A better framing might be that the exploitation is already happening, and buying from sweatshops is likely better than boycotting if you're concerned about the welfare of those workers. But that's not to say that sweatshops are not sites of many terrible abuses, and that seeking to eliminate those abuses through other avenues would not be a good thing. 

You may not be particularly interested in moral judgments of sweatshops as good or bad if you are focused on the utilitarian question of whether they are causing a net harm or a net good, but acknowledging that they are "bad" in the sense that they are exploitative and abusive may make it easier for people to swallow the separate argument that buying from sweatshops may nonetheless be more beneficial than harmful to the workers.

Probably because those who say sweatshops are great tend to not work at sweatshops. 

So it seems obvious to others that there are better ways for people to live, yet not everyone has access to those options. And arguments in favor of sweatshops are seen as missing the point or even keeping it that way. 

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It's the consensus amongst effective altruists that purchasing from sweatshops is one of the best ways to help the global poor and alleviate their poverty

I don't think that's the case. Most EAs would say the best way to help the global poor is to donate to effective charities, not to buy from sweatshops.

I think they mean buy from sweatshop compared to counterfactual fair trade place. Not sure if they mean donating the difference in money saved as well. 

What Daryl said. 

As far as the issue of alleviating poverty in these countries, it's one of the best ways.

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