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?

1.4.2 It's up to the market

On this view, market responsibility looks something like this: if left alone, foreign companies will do what they do best, which is to spot an opportunity in the global marketplace, take advantage of it, and then try to keep the spoils of globalisation to themselves until such time that they are forced by market pressures to share them with the local population in the form of higher wages and other such improvements. Or in Krugman's stinging words:

These improvements have not taken place because well-meaning people in the west have done anything to help – foreign aid, never large, has lately shrunk to virtually nothing. Nor is it the result of the benign policies of national governments, which are as callous and corrupt as ever. It is the indirect and unintended result of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs, whose only concern was to take advantage of the profit opportunities offered by cheap labour. It is not an edifying spectacle; but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful but nonetheless significantly better.

(Krugman, 1997, pp. 3–4)

The working conditions in the global factories may be awful at times, as indeed many in the pro-market lobby readily admit, but that does not alter their argument that a firm's responsibility lies in exploiting opportunities as they arise across the changing map of global uneven development. A world spatially differentiated by levels of wealth and income provides an opportunity for the poorest areas to exploit their low-cost competitive advantage and raise themselves out of poverty. The poor themselves, on this reckoning, have a responsibility to themselves, along with governments and local administrations, to attract overseas firms and allow market forces the possibility of realising a virtuous circle of growth. One could argue that this was precisely the kind of responsibility exercised by the ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1970s and 1980s, when the governing administrations in Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, actively courted foreign multinationals and the work they brought with them.

This notion of market responsibility implies that it is precisely the kinds of demands espoused by the antisweatshop movement that are irresponsible. Because the movement lays the blame for sweatshop exploitation at the door of the big multinationals, particularly those in North America and Europe, and exerts pressure on consumers to take note of the conditions under which their shirts and socks are made so that they, in turn, may put pressure on the multinationals, the whole process can lead to a gross distortion of market forces. At the end of this line of blame is the Indonesian factory manager who, on being informed by a contract multinational that he will have to pay more to the women he employs to stitch trainers, either forces them to work harder and faster or subcontracts production to a less visible workplace, possibly even to home workers. In either case, it is the workforce who lose out as a result of well-intentioned campaigns, even to the extent of losing their jobs.

For the pro-market lobby, it is precisely the feelings of guilt induced among consumers by often well-meaning campaigners which distorts the whole process. By insisting that sweatshop conditions exist elsewhere for their benefit, the antisweatshop movement has somewhat misguidedly made many consumers feel guilty about the clothes that they buy and many other manufactured goods. For those who wear the clothes or play with the latest electronic gadgets, the idea that they are in some way to blame for the harm carried out elsewhere, in their ‘name’ so to speak, is not only misleading, it could also result in jobs lost, factories closed down, and the only feasible route out of poverty for some countries blocked.

After all, so the pro-market lobby point out, it is only because antisweatshop campaigners have made a connection between the clothes worn ‘here’ and their distant manufacture over ‘there’ that we feel anything at all. In one sense the connection is arbitrary and depends upon a sense of shame being successfully invoked. Why, they insist, do we not care in the same way for those we have no connection to, yet who suffer far more than those fortunate enough to hold jobs in garment factories: those scraping a subsistence living in the fields or scavenging for scrap on the garbage heaps, for example? Also, they ask, why should anyone take responsibility for what happens elsewhere, other than the corporate firms directly involved, especially when there are so many pressing economic issues closer to home?

In response, the antisweatshop movement and other transnational NGOs stress the interdependency of all forms of economic activity nowadays, direct or otherwise. But, importantly, they also emphasise that faraway consumers, retailers and government officials may not be to blame for what happens elsewhere, on the far side of the globe. But they do bear a responsibility. The political theorist, Iris Marion Young, reflecting on the nature of the antisweatshop movement's claims, believes that the movement deliberately distinguishes blame from responsibility and only asks consumers to exercise responsibility in relation to sweatshops overseas. It is to her arguments that I now turn.


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