Better than nothing
"Although conditions in many of the [sweat]shops are admittedly wretched,
people chose to work in the shops of their own free will, experts point out,
because a lousy job is better than none at all. If major U.S. retailers stop
doing business with countries where exploitation is a fact of life, maquila
production will decline further in Central America and thousands of workers
– children and adults – will join the ranks of the unemployed, experts warn."
(Source: National Center for Policy Analysis, Month In Review, Trade June,
Sweatshops stir the consciences of all but the hardest of westerners who become
aware that most of their clothes come from them. We know that conditions in
these factories, usually, but not always, located in the developing world, are
awful. We know that workers often have few if any rights, receive measly pay
and often work in hazardous environments. If we think about it too much, we
may even wonder if we are modern-day slave-owners, enjoying the fruits of the
labour of those who toil on our behalf under conditions we would never accept
It can be very appealing, therefore, when someone comes up with an argument
that tells us we shouldn’t feel bad after all. Even better if that argument
says some true things.
This argument comes courtesy of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA),
whose goal "to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation
and control, solving problems by relying on the strength of the competitive,
entrepreneurial private sector." Those not drawn towards neo-liberal free-market
orthodoxy may feel suspicious of what such a body has to say, but their argument
needs to be judged on its merit, not its provenance.
Set aside for one moment the argument that the workers in these sweatshops
chose to work there freely. That will be a topic for a future Bad Moves. Focus
instead on the main point, which is that if we don’t buy goods which come from
sweatshops, the workers we are concerned about will be worse off, since their
poorly paid, tough and often dangerous jobs are better than no jobs at all,
or the alternatives open to them.
The argument has a good pedigree. Much cited is Lucy Martinez-Mont’s article
"Sweatshops Are Better than No Shops" (Wall Street Journal, June 25,
1996) in which she wrote, "Banning imports of child-made goods would eliminate
jobs, hike labor costs, drive plants from poor countries and increase debt.
Rich countries would sabotage Third World countries and deny poor children any
hope of a better future."
What Martinez-Mont says is true. The question is, what follows from it? What
clearly doesn’t follow is that we can carry on buying child-produced goods with
impunity, as many (but not all) proponents of the argument would have you believe.
The reason for this is that the choice is not between the status quo and banning
such imports. This is something most "fair trade" campaigners know
full well. For example, the Maquila Solidarity Network (www.maquilasolidarity.org)
advises, "Don’t promote a blanket boycott of all goods produced by child
labour," precisely on the grounds that simply withdrawing custom and leaving
nothing in its place is harmful to those they want to help. The Ethical Trade
Initiative (www.ethicaltrade.org) base code prohibits "new recruitment
of child labour" and insists that member "companies shall develop
or participate in and contribute to policies and programmes which provide for
the transition of any child found to be performing child labour to enable her
or him to attend and remain in quality education until no longer a child."
The point is simple. Poor working conditions may be better than nothing, but
that does not justify us supporting poor working conditions. The alternative
should not be nothing but making things better. A parent who feeds their child
junk food cannot say that they should not be criticised because junk food is
better than no food. The point is the parent has the choice to offer proper
So often "better than nothing" arguments simply gloss over the possibility
of changing things for the better and only draw comparisons with the even worse
option of "nothing". If it is genuinely the case that the only options
are something bad, and nothing, which is even worse, that does present a real
moral dilemma. But most of the time these aren’t the only options.
Consider one final example. It may be better for all parties concerned if you
buy a child to be your personal slave from a poor family starving to death rather
than just leave them. But does that really make it morally justifiable? After
all, if you can afford to buy a slave, you can afford just to give them the
money and take nothing in return. That too is better than nothing, but also
much better than the other alternative.