A High-Tech Replacement for Sweatshop Labour! Um…yay?

When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

Here’s the story, from Fast Company: Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet

The classic Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90 Nike shoes get the Vac Tech treatment–a thermo-molding technique that produces one-piece, stitch-free sneakers.

As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90–constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT, above, basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.

Now presumably — though details are sketchy — the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?

I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?

As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.

But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.

Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshop jobs that remain?

17 comments so far

  1. Grese on

    What a dilemma!!! From a worker’s perspective, I really could not take a decision on which outcome is the best for the people working in sweatshops.
    As you pointed out, one the one hand humans are getting excluded from potential dangerous work conditions and thereby enhance the possibility for them to engage in other education/jobs. The question remains, whether this is possible, or more extremely, whether the new job is better or not for the (ex-)workers of the sweatshop.
    On the other hand, excluding them from the job may not necessarily imply that these people can engage in any welfare-increasing activities. Besides, people may have to forego possible income, if this cannot be compensated by another job (which may take some time).
    Is there a solution if we look through an ethical lens that focuses on basic human needs in which the business is not disrupted? If so, is there a possiblity to enforce it from a consumer perspective?

    • ERIK on

      It is a tricky one, but in the long term perspectrive, the workers would probobly be better of if they didn´t work in the sweatshop, since they would have to find another job or education which is safer.

  2. JenS on

    @Grese- good questions. I am inclined to assume that if those people are working in sweatshop conditions that they are desperate enough for work that they would not have the other options that you mention available to them. If a person cannot feed and house the family, they are not going to be going to college. One would assume that if other/better jobs were available, they would not be working in sweatshops to begin with.

    Not that I would wish anyone to work in dangerous or unhealthy conditions, but I sure understand that if that is all there is the worker may not see losing their job as a blessing.

  3. Nino Miresashvili on

    This is a very hard dilemma indeed….
    Nowadays offshoring is a common trend for US and European companies due to lower labor costs, and Nike has pretty scandalous child labor issue background.
    Sweatshops which are associated with codes of conduct violations can not be good or ethical, but on the other hand if there are no sweatshop jobs, some people will be literally dying from hunger…
    One more point is that taking a sweatshop job puts the employers and workers in a win-win situation, as corporations keep the production costs low and the workers still get some money to survive…
    But even with this logic, it is still hard to choose a single ethical perspective for solving the dilemma…

  4. Emilia on

    I think that the opinions on this difficult dilemma would differ depending on who you ask. For us living in developed conuntries we feel that exploiting cheap labour is definitely wrong, but as the other commentators have pointed out, perhaps the sweatshop workers would not agree. Not having a work to go to (even if the conditions are extremely bad…) means no food on the table for neither yourself nor you children… So this technological “reform” will probably lead to many hungry families. Perhaps NIKE should take some responsibility after laying off these workers, and instead invest a small sum on another opportunity in the same area (perhaps a smaller local business) that leads to job opportunities for the former sweatshop workers. Maybe I’m out in the blue, but I believe that the best tool to fight poverty is to start to trade and invest with business in those concerned areas…

  5. Laura on

    Hi Chris! I understand your reasoning and that people have different opinions on this issue, but has not nike an obligation to also be innovative and aim for development in the interests of their stakeholders. Imagine how many people in the world who would be adversely affected if nike would stop developing. Of course, disappointing that the poorly paid workers out of work, but was their poorly paid jobs ethically, then? Nike may have done the ethical thing by no longer having workers with poor working conditions? What a difficult dilemma, this problem can be seen from so many different angles! / Laura

  6. Isabell on

    This is a very difficult dilemma and I don’t think that there is an obvious solution to this. For people in the more developed countires, like us in Sweden, it is taken for granted that the work conditions should be good according to our standards, and anything less is not acceptable. But we have to see this from these workers point of view. To them it is a job, which is probably not easy to get in the first place. Of course they want to have good working conditions too and they should. The question is is Nike and other companies are doing them a favour or disfavour by no longer giving them jobs. For us it is mostly good that they are taking it away because we would want the products to be produced by workers in good working conditions. Since this is a high priority for many western countries we would do good in investing a little more in the working conditions for these people, and maybe paying a little more for our products. It would be worth it, wouldn’t it?

  7. Lisha Huang (@lisa_073) on

    This is truly a dilemma!! Exploration of labour is definitely something that we won’t allocate. However I find that people in more developed countries show strong objections though others in less developed countries seem to accept it easier. Thinking about the reason why those poor workers want the jobs even though they know that they can only get low payment with extremely hard and exhausting work. They need to survive! And unfortunately this is the only job that they can find, and pathetic to say the so-called relatively low wage may be the highest they can get. It reminds me of Maslows theory of hierarchy, for those employees, the physiological needs of survive are what they look for.

  8. Andreas A. on

    Regardless of this issue being a dilemma or not, the focus should be on the government. The sweatshop workers and other poor people for that matter are just trying to find a way to survive. They need food on their table, pretty much like the rest of us. By contracting factories in developing countries you are in fact supporting a government that does not take responsibility for their citizens. As you described nike being a villain, I would argue on the contrary. Of course, child labor is morally wrong but also illegal in the developed countries. However, this does not apply to most developing and third world countries. I would argue that cultural relativism would not supply a solution, but rather an understanding of the conditions at hand. What is legally and morally right or wrong in our country, does not automatically apply in other countries. As a business person you need to comply with your own set of rules and code of conduct. For instance, would you yourself let your 6 year old son or daughter be working? The immediate respons would certainly be no. However, seen from a poor fathers point of view no matter his own better judgement would let his son or daughter work in that age. Since he might be a subject/victim of extreme poverty. Who are we to judge? Everybody needs to survive, one way or the other. That is who we are and always have been.

    Instead of focusing on the individual level, which in a way is a victim of governmental actions, the focus should rather be on companies as mediaries between their home country and their factory’s country. So the battle could be on governmental level, which it belongs, rather than corporate level. This in turn would create a more powerful way since corporations are like individuals, each corporation acting individually and in according to their own moral. One can argue that corporations are political actors, however they are not democratically elected and does not have power of policy-making despite of their monetary power.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Careful: I never said Nike is a villain.
      Also, some governments simply cannot afford to “take responsibility for” their citizens. There’s often very little that the government of an impoverished nation can do.

      • Andreas A. on

        Correction: Nike was once villainized by its customers but mostly by medias.

        Yes, I agree that most third-world governments are incapable of taking care of their citizens. However, by supplying sweatshops jobs to those countries will often not help them out of the situation. Since it is very common for governments in this position to be corrupt, I would say that the very presence of a foreign company in such countries are irresponsible. Because it is benefiting the corrupt nation to continue its stronghold.

  9. Sara Ohlin on

    Absolute world – no thank you
    It depends on who’s perspective we are looking from. Shouldn’t corporations try to influence and make a change in countries where they are active instead of just running away? Maybe the sweatshop jobs are bad according to our standars but this is not an absolute world where we can expect all countries to be on our “level of development”. We can ask ourselves if we have the right to demand that companies enforce our laws, and standards on factories in other countries? Of course we can work for a change in the future but for now I believe that we are helping those developing countries by supplying jobs.

  10. Ali.H on

    I agree with you, Chris! The suggestion that governments in poor nations should take responsibility for this issue is simply not realistically viable (as if they do not have enough problems already).

    Nike has indeed had their share of misdeeds in the past regarding working conditions. The company seems to have embraced better corporate accountability policies with increased transparency, revealing the identities and locations of Nike suppliers in 2005. And as you mentioned, they are in fact leading their industry in terms of labour standards. I notice you share a utilitarian moral view on this issue and that one should weigh the benefits against the harms to be able to make a decision that is for the benefit of the collective welfare. However, I agree with several of the above comments and would personally try moral ethics of rights and justice even though I acknowledge that it has some flaws and is as less realistic to apply as Nike changing back to human labour. It is understandable, since the decision makers at Nike try to satisfy managers and stakeholders. After all, large corporates strive for enlightened self-interest and profits, don’t you agree?

    PS Major kudos for definitely most interesting (in my opinion) ethics blog available on Internet!

    • Andreas A. on

      It might not be realistic to dedicate this responsibility to the government, however it leaves something to strive for. One might wish for better living standards of an individual, however the welfare for an entire nation got to be the ultimate goal.

      Indeed, they might have a lot on their hands but you cannot simply allocate responsibility to others. It is the governments responsibility so supply the rules of the game, by setting up policies and rules, for the companies and people to comply. Companies do not make the laws, they need simply, or hopefully, to comply to them.

      Companies strive for profits, indeed. Whether it is short-term or long-term, they need to keep their shareholders happy. However, one must not forget the power of the market. Nike did not only suffer in terms of attention in the media, they did also suffer a hugh loss in profit. They have learned their lesson and needed to make that change in order to be credible towards their customers.

  11. Mario Sulev on

    Clearly, the utilizations of machines will benefit the companies by increasing their production capacity or reducing their costs, but it will surely not benefit the workers. So, I agree with you that this is a complicated dilemma. But there are a few things that I totally disagree with:

    You should not be looking from your perspective. You should be looking from the company’s perspective, since they are making the decision whether to utilize the machine or not. There is just no point of looking from your perspective. Also, I doubt that you care that much about how the products you are using have been produced. Most of the people even do not think about this when making the decision whether to buy a product or not.

    Also, I do not agree with the following statement :

    ” Of course they want to have good working conditions too and they should.”

    Believe me, it is not like that. These people are even not thinking about good working conditions. They think that the working conditions they see are the norm. I have worked with such people and I can clearly see that this way of thinking is not even close to their minds. They think for other “big issues” like how the Egyptian pyramids were built, but clearly not for working conditions. Moreover, I bet that 99% of these people do not have the experience of working outside of their small communities, so they cannot compare their working conditions to anywhere else.

    Furthermore, there is an abundance of such unskilled workers. So, you cannot even imagine how grateful these people are when somebody offers them any work that they can do. They are even giving present to their employer.

    Let’s get back to the dilemma.
    If I were the manager that should make this decision I would surely choose to utilize the machine and to fire some workers. Yes, I know that these workers would be DEVASTATED, but since most people do not know this I would be happy start earning more money and what’s more to state: look my company is not exploiting workers.

  12. Nikola Sulev on

    First, I agree with you Chris, that machines do not necessarily replace workers. In most cases the workers should be (or become) more qualified to work with these machines. Thus the implement of a new technology can even increase the particular industry skills of the workers.
    I think the issue about the sweatshop workers may go on both directions. Most of them are apparently being exploited in regards to the monetary advantage of paying less.

    Chris, I want to ask you: How can a middle-size company engage in both good conditions for the employees and shareholders’ wealth deriving from this social responsible behavior? The question is really broader so I give you the following example.

    Nestle is the leading brand that has plants in developing countries in the confectionary and coffee industry. They have standards for their product sets anywhere in the world. So, they can hardly indulge in behavior that may affect their brand name and reputation. (as bad working conditions) Thus they can hardly afford to use sweatshop workers even in developing countries like Bulgaria. Of course they pay less, compared to France but the living standards in the two countries are completely different.
    My question is how a middle-size company in the same industry survives and how it competes with such a giant like Nestle. Since the middle-size company cannot afford to sell its products on a brand premium price they have to cut costs and try penetrating into the market. There are several ways of cutting costs, like new technologies, machines etc. but I want to focus the most on the one that you mentioned and that is concerning the developing and underdeveloped countries the most- the sweatshop workers. So, the middle-sized and small companies either stay on track with the ethical standards employed by “the big” or either wade them and employ sweatshop workers. Associated with the faster growing of the second approach, the middle-sized companies create more working places and thus help other people that are striving to find a job in the developing countries, where the unemployment is high! Also, whenever there are more, strong competitors usually the prices fall, so it is beneficial also for every consumer but especially for the poor people, living on the streets in the underdeveloped and sometimes developed countries.
    So following these thoughts I want to conclude with a proverb.
    Every cloud has a silver lining!

    I would really appreciate if I can receive an opinion, from you about the case that I mentioned.

  13. […] See also: A High-Tech Replacement for Sweatshop Labour! Um…yay? […]

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