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A Response to David Hume's Analysis of Foreign Labor and Sweat Shops

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

Hume's Argument for Unregulated Sweatshops

In Pietra Rivoli's essay "Labor Standards in the Global Economy: Issues for Investors," he argues how foreign labor standards and sweatshops should be conducted across the globe. Near the end of this essay, David Hume is quoted stating a strong argument in favor of the view that it is never appropriate to require manufacturers to do more for their employees, in terms of wages and working conditions, than what follows from a free labor market. If this is correct, then so-called “sweatshops” should not be regulated, provided the workers understand and agree to the labor contract.

Hume furthers his argument by noting that manufacturers who utilize sweatshops often times enrich the countries they are located in and introduce them into the industrialized world. Gradually, as labor laws and minimum wage prices make it difficult for the manufacturers to get the cheapest labor and production possible, the manufacturers shift to lower-cost locations. In doing so, they leave behind an economically enriched nation which was once poverty-stricken and move onward toward the enrichment of the next poverty-stricken country.

Hume suggests that in the manufacturer’s attempt to win the “race to the bottom,” they often times enrich and help develop the countries which they were exploiting in the first place. While legally mandated minimum wages in sweatshops may not always be sufficient to sustain workers and their families, oftentimes low-skill factory work represents the best alternative available to many citizens in developing countries. Without the low wages offered by these brutish manufacturers, the citizens’ next best option might be rural poverty.

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Exploitation of Sweatshop Laborers

So, should Hume’s statement be regarded as a positive view when evaluating the manipulation of manufacturers in undeveloped countries? Or should we resist this passive approach to the problems resulting from sweatshops in such countries? In my opinion, this view should be regarded as a weak excuse to further the agenda of such manufacturers and should be argued against at all costs for the sake of the workers who are being taken advantage of all throughout the world.

Hume’s statement should be resisted, because, while there may be of some benefit in the developing of undeveloped countries, for the most part, sweatshops exploit their workers, both physically and financially, and rely on shady practices in order to create the greatest possible outcome for the manufacturers and corporations utilizing such means of labor. Laborers in sweatshops are essentially made to slave away in hard working conditions for low pay. In many instances, the manufacturers implement outrageous wage practices such as forced overtime, unexplained or arbitrary fines and deductions from workers’ paychecks, the practice of training wages that do not meet minimum wage requirements, and significant delays in worker compensation (Rivoli). In other cases, health and safety regulations provide subpar working environments for the laborers. Often times, poor ventilation systems result in the toxic poisoning of workers, blocked fire exits result in worker deaths and injuries, and further unsanitary conditions have been noted.

International Labor Standards and Worker's Rights

Labor Standards for Multinational Corporations Operating in Developing Countries

Still, the question remains, what can be done about these sweatshops throughout the world? Likely, there are conclusions to be drawn about labor standards for multinational corporations operating in developing countries. Rivoli suggests that those concerned with labor standards throughout the sweatshop implemented countries should evaluate the firms on four dimensions:

1) the code of conduct applicable to the firm's manufacturing operations as well as its contractors, 2) the dissemination of the code of conduct, 3) the disclosure mechanisms in place, and 4) the monitoring schemes employed (Rivoli 227).

Codes of conduct represent material that covers collective efforts of firms through industry associations; some represent the work of human rights or religious groups, while others are company-specific. While there are many attempts at acknowledging all aspects of conduct throughout these corporations, many codes overlap when assessing child labor, discrimination on the basis of race or sex, the provision of influential health and safety standards, and worker's rights to organize collectively.

Still, other standards are demanded by radicalists opposing the implementation of sweatshops and similar practices. One way they state corporations and manufacturers can begin being held accountable for their actions is through dissemination. Dissemination would result in the companies having to share a large portion of their internal information to the public.

Activists claim that such disclosure would be a powerful incentive for companies to adhere to high-level standards. However, there is the claim that this will not always provide the greatest benefit for the workers within the company’s sweatshops. For if corporations are forced to reveal such raw information of their internal workings, there is a fear that such a release of information may lead to less in-depth monitoring of the labor standards.

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Monitoring Foreign Labor Companies

In Rivoli’s final dimension of implemented standards, he claims that it would be beneficial for companies to be monitored by independent sponsors who adhere to high-level standards of labor and wage distribution. The only problem with this implementation is where to get such sponsors and, if such sponsors could be found, how to fund them. Further questions rely on how the sponsors should monitor the corporations and to what extent. Rivoli asks the question of whether monitorings should be executed unannounced or whether the corporations should be notified of such a visit ahead of time. Also, since there is such a numerous number of corporations implementing sweatshops, the question remains as to how to monitor all of the companies. If only ten percent of the companies can be monitored each year, how will these companies be chosen and to what extent will the non-monitored companies be made to adhere to similar standards?

To the extent that I understand and agree to what Rivoli is trying to impose on corporations who utilize sweatshop labor, I see no major problems with the standards he is trying to implement. I do think that these corporations should be monitored, especially the ones allowing for child labor. I am not sure that child labor is a bad thing, for I do not know the predicaments in which the families in the countries are faced with. However, I think that some form of government or agency should begin requiring much higher standards of these corporations who are trying to race to the bottom.

At the very least, the minimum wage should be raised so that the families can support themselves comfortably without having to work overtime hours or be exploited for all the manpower they can exert. I am not too sure how we could get these agents to enforce such a standard, yet I am sure that if more people became directly aware of what the corporations were doing to people such measurements could begin heading in the right direction. Perhaps we need to strike these corporations at the source of their wealth, the consumers. If all the consumers were made aware of the heinous conditions of sweatshop labor, more so than they are now, then maybe strikes and boycotts could prove effective in influencing the major corporations to raise their standards and wages for outsourced labor. This would definitely prove difficult though, since the consumers we are dealing with are Americans, and I find that, typically, Americans care for none but themselves. The only way to impact the mind of America is to directly influence or impact America; of this, I am unsure how to produce such an influential impact.

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Making a Difference

To date, I see more worry about the rights of animals and the rights of internal citizens than I do the rights of foreign laborers. It just seems to me that Americans do not care much for people outside of our country unless there is an epidemic or disaster that the media has told us to care about. So, the only way for these corporations to raise their standards is through some form of monitoring. Perhaps we can implement the use of technology in our monitoring systems if we can ever produce one. Such technology would keep corporate information private from the public and could only be accessible to those who are in charge of such monitoring systems. It seems as though governments are already using technology to monitor their citizens.

I do not see a very far leap in assuming that monitors can use similar technologies to monitor these corporations. In any case, I think the wages should be increased for these laborers. However this might come about, I am still unsure. Whatever the case may be, these laborers are human beings too. This is something the citizens of America need to realize as well as the corporations who exploit said workers.

Labor Standards for Sweatshops

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