Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Morality of Profit by Exploitation of Circumstance

We hear every day of American corporations setting up factories in foreign countries, cashing in on the cheap labor available in the poorer parts of the world. It is said that these companies are exploiting the people hired by these "sweatshops"...That the companies profit at the expense of these workers, who have no other opportunities, and are therefore "forced" to work in factories where conditions are poor by American standards.

To those who cry out that this is wrong or immoral, I ask this question: Is it immoral to offer someone a better opportunity than what they already have available?

Interestingly enough, I have asked this question of a few people, and I'm usually told that the comparative level of opportunity offered is irrelevant when workplace conditions are poor. I must admit that this logic escapes me.

If I offer someone a job, as an alternative to starvation, prostitution, or outright theft, and they choose to accept it voluntarily, haven't I just made that person's life better? How is it moral to say that I shouldn't offer the opportunity unless it conforms to some arbitrary standard? Shouldn't it be up to the individual to decide by his or her own standards?

Better Alternatives

If I set up a factory in Bangladesh to make t-shirts, I have to attract labor. In order to do so, I have to offer a better comparative opportunity for potential workers. This means I will have to pay more or provide better benefits than other businesses in the region. In many cases, it may simply be enough to offer the job at any amount of pay...if the alternative is no job at all. Even if the work is dangerous or the conditions hazardous, the individuals who accept the jobs are making a choice between alternatives. If they choose to work in my factory, it is simply because I offer the better alternative.

I've often heard the argument that the workers in this situation "have no choice", and so it's wrong for me to take advantage of that. The truth is that they do have a choice. It may not be a good choice, but it's a choice nonetheless. If the choice is between having a job and starving to death, how am I in the wrong by offering them the opportunity to not starve to death?

What if the machinery in my factory is cheap, defective, or poorly maintained, and therefore dangerous? What if someone loses a hand, or worse? Regardless of whether or not I'm held accountable by law for the injury or death of a worker, there will still be consequences. Some workers may decide that the risk of working in my factory is not worth the pay and quit. The ones that remain may demand more pay. Productivity may suffer because the workers are more cautious around the machines and work more slowly in the name of safety. Word of my dangerous factory will undoubtedly spread, discouraging applicants and reducing the available labor pool. In any case, the costs of the worker's injury or death will almost certainly exceed whatever I may have saved by purchasing shoddy machinery. Most likely, I'll have to invest in newer, safer machinery. Even if I don't do so, however, I may still attract workers who feel that my factory offers a better alternative. An individual could certainly decide that the potential of losing a hand is better than certain starvation, and they should be allowed to make that choice.

Wouldn't Regulations Help?

American companies choose to set up factories in foreign countries for various reasons, but the main reason is to reduce production costs by making use of inexpensive labor. Many who feel that the laborers are being exploited call for government regulation of overseas expansion, primarily with regard to workplace conditions and wages. They want to elevate the conditions of foreign labor employed by American companies to an "American" standard. The problem with doing this is that it increases the cost of foreign labor to the point that it nullifies the incentive to use it in the first place, thus denying foreign laborers the opportunities they so desperately need.

After all, we Americans were only able to advance ourselves to our current standard by taking risks. Consider the puritan settlers who first colonized the New World. Most of them were farmers and tradesmen, many of them poorly educated. Additionally, sea travel in 1620 was horribly treacherous. They took a grave risk setting sail for an unknown land, but the choice represented an opportunity to better their situations. Should they have been allowed to go? Shouldn't some human rights activist group, concerned for the separatists' well-being, stepped up and petitioned King James to prohibit the voyage of the Mayflower because they believed the risk to be too great? Was it immoral to allow them to choose to take such a risk?

In my view, what is immoral is to impose one's own standards upon another, rather than allowing the other to make his own choice. Freedom means being allowed to choose one's own destiny, even if the path is hazardous or the choices dangerous.