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?

1.4.3 It's all down to connections

For Iris Marion Young, the responsibility of those in North America and Europe towards distant others does indeed rest with their connections to injustices elsewhere, but it would be a mistake to stretch this line of reasoning too far. Although these connections, whether as a consumer, boardroom executive or shop manager, can establish a line of responsibility, as was claimed in Section 3.1, for Young this is only the starting point and not the end point of our involvement. We do not have to worry endlessly about exactly where the shirt on our back comes from or think that we are in some way to blame for the harm done by ruthless factory managers elsewhere, but, she argues, we should be aware that we are connected to an economic system which allows sweatshops to persist across the globe. As Young understands it, those in the antisweatshop movement are not demanding that everyone should care about workers on the other side of the world simply because they suffer oppression and injury – as do many people in other kinds of contexts. Rather, it is because we are all part of much bigger processes which enable those conditions that we should do what we can. We may not be to blame for suffering elsewhere, but in this and many other cases, we are connected to it. As she goes on to say:

The harm the workers suffer comes most immediately at the hands of factory owners and managers who set hunger level wages and inhumane hours and intimidate anyone who tries to change these conditions. These owners and managers themselves operate, however, in a huge global system that both encourages their practices and constrains their ability to modify those practices – because of a realistic fear of being undercut in a highly competitive environment. The antisweatshop movement argues that all the persons and institutions who participate in the structured processes that produce this constraint should take responsibility for the condition of the workers. We are connected to them; we wear clothes they make; we sell them in our stores.

(Young, 2003, p. 40)

Our connection to a system which produces these harms and injustices means that we have a political responsibility to do something about them. The intolerable conditions endured in sweatshops, wherever they may be, come about through the actions of many different people operating in ways that, were they aware of the final consequences, they may well choose not to adopt. The same unedifying spectacle, the same soulless multinationals and rapacious local firms figure in Young's account of factory sweatshops as much as they do in Krugman's, but this time the argument is not to leave them well alone; it is to intervene in a global system that encourages the worst practices to ensure economic survival. Left to their own devices, sweatshop economies will not lead their workforces out of poverty, but deeper into it. Accepting political responsibility, on this view, means, first and foremost, understanding how individuals, groups and institutions are tied into the global market system and then acting upon those connections.

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