Pietro Maffettone

Sweatshop Labor: Three Fallacies

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Many routinely argue that while the wages of sweatshop workers in developing countries are extremely low, higher ones would imply more unemployment, and less social welfare. Some also add that sweatshop workers willingly accept their working conditions and thus that to interfere with those conditions would imply disrespecting their individual choices. I believe these arguments are often grounded on empirical and normative assumptions that we ought to question. To do so, in part 1, I discuss some of the literature on the impact of minimum wages on employment levels both in general and in developing countries more specifically. The main conclusion I draw is that the literature portrays the trade-off between higher wages and employment as a very limited one. In part 2 I accept, for the sake of argument, that there might be significant trade-offs between higher wages for sweatshop workers and how many of them are employed and ask what we ought to conclude if we assess the issue from a welfare perspective. I contend that no definitive conclusion can be drawn if we look at the implications for the welfare of society as a whole or sweatshop workers as a group unless further information and/or controversial premises are added to the picture. Finally, in part 3, I tackle the question of the moral relevance of the choices made by sweatshop workers. There, I argue that it is unclear that sweatshop workers prefer their current predicament to one that involves higher wages coupled with a higher risk of being unemployed


  • sweatshops
  • exploitation
  • social welfare
  • contractualism
  • voluntariness


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