Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?
Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

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Claiming connections: A distant world of sweatshops?

1.1.3 Introduction continued

The difficulty perhaps is that things which happen at some distance from the everyday routine of our lives are often hard to place or connect with. Moreover, it has to be said that not everyone views factory sweatshops in quite the same way as groups such as Oxfam, or indeed endorses their negative claims about the use of cheap labour in places such as East Asia. For that is what the statements of such groups are: claims. And they are far from uncontroversial.

In fact, it is possible to mount a quite different claim which insists that the location of poorly paid sweatshops in developing parts of the world is not only a positive phenomenon, but also the key to a poorer nation's economic development. For some economists and pro-market thinkers, factory sweatshops represent a way out of poverty: the price of an entry ticket into global markets. Previous low-wage economies such as Hong Kong and South Korea, we are told, turned their countries around economically by exploiting their low-cost advantages in global markets. Best to leave well alone, is their message to the antisweatshop campaigners, and let the markets do their work.

Broadly speaking, for our purposes, the claims and counter-claims around sweatshops, as sketched here, underpin two contrasting demands: one to be involved in matters of economic inequality and injustice, no matter how remote; the other to leave such matters well alone, to remain distant from but not necessarily indifferent to the plight of others elsewhere. The aim of this course is to explore both positions in order to examine the idea that we should assume some responsibility for elsewhere, and how this is understood to work in the arguments of the antisweatshop movement and its more pro-market opponents.

Arising out of this, a major concern of the course will be to show how – in both demands – what we take to be near to us and what we experience as far away is less rigid than may at first appear. In the case of the antisweatshop movement, a critical part of its campaign has been to try to bring exploitation and injustice in some parts of the world to the attention of people in other, richer parts. Through a series of well-orchestrated campaigns, a distant world of sweatshops has been deliberately drawn closer in an attempt to make present to those in the affluent parts of the world what life is really like elsewhere. Conversely, those who view the use of cheap labour in parts of Asia as the beginning of something better, economically, have tended to distance consumers from what is happening there by insisting on the complex, fragmented nature of the marketplace. In a world where physical distance is measured in miles and kilometres, such concerns may seem odd at first glance, but the intention is merely to ask you to think carefully about how, in the context of globalisation, some demands can lead to issues being brought close to us, while others can make them appear increasingly distant.

In the next two sections, I spell out in more detail the claims and the counter-claims which have been made around factory sweatshops. Following that, in Section 4 I look more closely at how these claims are translated into demands to take responsibility at-a-distance for conditions in sweatshops, considering both those who take a benign view of the global marketplace and those who see it as an institution which effectively obscures our geographical responsibilities. For the moment, though, I focus on the highly charged issue of the virtues and the vices of global factories overseas.

Course aims

  • To examine the extent to which consumption of cheap branded goods makes consumers responsible for the conditions under which they are made.

  • To consider the arguments for and against overseas sweatshop exploitation.

  • To explore how consumers are distanced from overseas sweatshop exploitation and, conversely, how the antisweatshop movement has attempted to make the issue live and proximate.

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