Contemporary discussions on global labor practices often feature sweatshops and child workforce. Opponents advocate for stricter regulations against the use of child labor in sweatshops (factories) run by multinational firms or outsourced to subcontractors in developing economies.
On the other hand, economists contend that sweatshops help developing nations expand their economies through exports. While it can be argued that the responsibility of restricting the use of minors as sweatshop workforce rests with the multinationals, some ‘deviant’ companies insist that their actions do not contravene the local labor laws and cultures.
Nevertheless, sweatshops face much criticism because they provide oppressive work conditions to workers. Children in sweatshops work for long hours, under poor workplace conditions, and earn a meager pay. Despite the violation of children’s rights, sweatshops continue to thrive as more big firms seek cheap labor overseas.
This begs the question, who should be held responsible for child abuse in sweatshops? While proponents support sweatshops as a way of improving the economic status of people in poor countries, the use of child labor is unethical, exploitative, and violates the minor’s basic rights. Multinationals reap huge profits from the sweatshops run by overseas suppliers. In this view, multinationals should play a central role in discouraging child labor in sweatshops.
Multinationals, by virtue of the fact that they benefit from the sweatshops, should pro-actively restrict child labor use in those factories. In general, child labor is considered an immoral form of exploitation. Multinationals, such as Nike, have initiated strict codes of conduct to restrict child labor in the manufacture of garments and sports apparels (Winstanley, Clark, and Leeson 211).
On the other hand, other firms refuse to take responsibility, claiming that they cannot regulate the operations of their overseas suppliers. However, driven by the desire for profits, overseas firms may not stop hiring children as a cheap source of labor. According to Winstanley, Clark, and Leeson, in some Asian and Latin American nations, parents take older children to go to school with the hope that they will come to “educate the younger siblings who are currently working” (215).
Parents believe that children can gain practical skills by working. This shows that multinationals cannot rely on local policies and governments to abolish child labor. On the contrary, they have a social responsibility of prohibiting child labor in their sweatshops, as local policies and laws may not abolish this problem.
Boycotts involving factory operators and consumers have also been cited as a possible way of forcing the multinationals to adopt positive labor practices. Boycotts, however, only offer a temporary reprieve as some companies can relocate to countries that have less stringent laws against child labor or seek new markets.
By boycotting products from sweatshops that hire minors, consumers can compel the companies to adhere to international labor standards. Research shows that up to 80 percent of American consumers are willing to part with “an extra $1 on a 20$ garment” made in factories other than in sweatshops employing minors (Pollin, Burns, and Heintz 156).
This shows that consumers prefer to shop in stores that adhere to fair treatment standards. Despite the growing awareness of fair treatment among American consumers, it is often difficult to determine the products that are fashioned according to such standards. Thus, consumers may unwittingly buy cheap products fashioned in sweatshops that use child labor.
Critics also propose the banning of imports from countries that do not adhere to fair labor standards. Human rights activists advise developed countries to ban all products made by child workers. They advocate for regular on-site inspections by international bodies to ensure that multinationals comply with fair treatment standards (Martin and Maskus 324). They also encourage industrialized nations to impose higher tariffs on exports from countries that condone child labor.
In contrast, proponents of sweatshops argue that industrialized nations may use such tariffs and import bans to protect local industries. Though the World Trade Organization outlaws the employment of anyone below 18 years, it cannot do much in countries with laws that condone child labor (Martin and Maskus 324). Thus, only multinationals can regulate employment practices in their overseas factories in order to end child labor.
An argument advanced by economists in favor of sweatshops is that jobs given to children are better than other available choices in developing countries. Thus, ending child labor will leave minors poorer and vulnerable. Moreover, since most of the children have no parents or guardians, they are at a greater risk of engaging in criminal activities to earn a living (Varley 11). However, child labor in sweatshops is not subject to free market forces.
This means that the employment contract does not favor the interests of the minors. In addition, no measures are implemented to protect children from occupational health risks. Normally, an employment agreement is voluntary because of both the adult worker and the employer consent to the terms and conditions of work.
However, minors cannot make rational decisions and therefore, contractual agreements may not favor them. Moreover, in developing countries, big firms often circumvent free market conditions and continue to use children as cheap labor in their factories (Varley 15).
In this regard, multinational companies should improve their labor practices to promote free labor markets. Children consent to work under poor conditions in sweatshops because they lack any other means of generating income (Varley 17). Free markets will lead to competitive wages for workers and thus, attract skilled adult labor in sweatshops and other factories.
A campaign featuring human rights activists, child welfare organizations, and other groups seeks to legislate against the importation of products made in factories believed to employ children workers (Hartman, Arnold, and Wokutch 44).
In addition to import bans, the coalition seeks to pressure governments to disclose multinationals running sweatshops and encourage consumers to boycott their products. Although such actions can help end child labor, freer markets can attract adult labor and prevent the hiring of minors in sweatshops.
Multinationals should take corporate responsibility for the labor abuses in sweatshops and implement initiatives to end them. Such initiatives include monitoring the working conditions and the ages of the workers employed by the suppliers. A case in point is Nike. After facing protracted criticism from the media, Nike decided to increase the minimum age of its “footwear factory and light-manufacturing to 18 and 16 respectively” to redeem its image (Hartman, Arnold, and Wokutch 47).
Besides, corporate social responsibility programs can also reduce the number of minors employed in sweatshops. These can be in the form of grants or loans given to poor households in developing countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand, to start small enterprises. Multinationals can also invest in worker education programs to educate children who cannot attend school.
Sweatshops represent a failure of labor practices and thus, should be abolished. They exploit children by paying them meager wages and providing poor working conditions. Nevertheless, economists contend that sweatshops present a better income-generating opportunity for minors compared to other available options.
Moreover, they make competitive products at low labor costs. Given their economic benefits, developing economies may not abolish child labor in these factories. On the other hand, consumer boycotts and import bans will only hurt developing economies. Thus, to end child labor in sweatshops, multinationals must monitor hiring practices and working conditions to ensure that they meet international standards and increase awareness about this issue.
Hartman, Laura, Denis Arnold, and Richard Wokutch. Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Management Approaches to Global Labor Practices. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003. Print.
Martin, William and Keith Maskus. “The Economics of Core Labor Standards: Implications for Global Trade Policy.” Review of International Economics 9 (2001): 317-328. Print.
Pollin, Robert, Justine Burns, and James Heintz. “Global Apparel Production and Sweatshop Labour: Can Raising Retails Prices Finance Living Wages?” Cambridge Journal of Economics (2004): 153-171. Print.
Varley, Pamela. The Sweatshop Quandary: Corporate Responsibility on the Global Frontier. New York: Investor Responsibility Research Center, 1998. Print.
Winstanley, Diana, Joanna Clark, and Helena Leeson. “Approaches to Child Labour in the Supply Chain.” Business Ethics: A European Review 11 (2002): 210-223. Print.