Exploitation is Exploitation is Exploitation

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Last year I took John Miller’s econ class Sweatshops in the World Economy in which we examined the ongoing impacts of globalization, free trade and capitalism on working conditions both abroad and in the United States. Throughout the semester we were given four definitions of a sweatshop and asked to choose the one we felt to be the most accurate. All four definitions discussed the problems of unregulated labor, overwork and underpayment but I found Andrew Ross’s definition in his anthology No Sweat to be the most appropriate and all encompassing. He defines a sweatshop as “a general description of all exploitative labor conditions, rather than a sub-par outfit, as defined by existing laws in whatever country the owner chooses to operate…the fact is that virtually every low-wage job, even those that meet minimum wage requirements and safety criteria fails to provide an adequate standard of living for its wage earners, let alone his or her family” (296). This definition of a sweatshop condemns any and all exploitative labor. The other definitions maintain that workers should be regulated, represented, compensated for overtime, given hour limitations, and paid minimum wage, all of which are important, but they disregard the need for a living wage. Minimum wage may be more than many workers are making now, but it still isn’t enough to survive on. It is the definition that recognizes all of the workers exigencies.

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Ross discusses the problems of free trade in his book Nice Work If You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times, he states, “as long as the appalling conditions of low-wage offshore workers do not pose an immediate threat to consumers, however, they can always be glossed over as matters for the individual conscience to process. This is less the case when it comes to the compromised safety of thousands of products on the shelves manufactured or assembled in the loosely regulated production zones that host the modern sweatshop…for every American child who might come in contact with a contaminated toy train, thousands of teenage girls toil twelve hours a day for a pittance, inhaling poisonous fumes in factories that are often firetraps” (105-106). Essentially, free trade becomes problematic when it impacts the workers and laborers and values the product over the producer. An example of one of the many ways anti-sweatshop activists have tried to combat the impacts of free trade can be seen in the implementation of the Accord. The Accord is a legally binding pact that was created by several labor unions and European firms after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. It requires factory inspections, fire and safety training, trade union involvement, and legally binding intercession for non-compliance. In other words, it obligates brands to take responsibility for the conditions in their factories through making the brand and subcontractors jointly liable for the safety and well being of their employees.

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If we use Ross’s definition to define a sweatshop it allows us to challenge the practices of varying work places in today’s society. We assume that sweatshops only exist in third world countries or the garment industry, but this definition draws attention to the exploitation of workers in all kinds of work places, maintaining that any work place in or outside the United States that exploits its workers’ financial stability, status, or desperation is a sweatshop. To relate this discussion back to our senior seminar, I think it could be argued that, based off of Ross’s definition of a sweatshop, work in the creative industries can be considered exploitative. Granted, the conditions at the Google headquarters are vastly different from the conditions at a handbag factory in Bangladesh, but the principles remain the same. If we implement tactics like the Accord to all industries and work environments we take the first step on our way to ensuring the fair treatment of workers cross culturally and across all disciplines. We need to develop a system of checks and balances in an attempt to safeguard workers from being taken advantage of in all fields.

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