When Rights Become Wrongs

exploitation

Some presumptive rights are in fact making things worse for people. A “right not to be exploited” can condemn the potential victims of exploitation to other kinds of victimhood that are even harder to bear than exploitation. Take for example some kinds of sweatshop laborers and child laborers. Mutually beneficial exploitation is real, and, while it’s definitely immoral it may still be better than the status quo ante. If children aren’t allowed to work or sweatshops are closed under pressure then people’s lives may well turn for the worse. More poverty or worse labor conditions – e.g. prostitution or slavery – can be their lot.

Something similar is the case for the so-called right to cultural identity. This right may very well force some members of cultural communities to endure cultural practices that are harmful to their individual rights, all in the name of preserving the cultural identity of the group. Another example: the “right to land” is often invoked in certain developing countries and is supposed to be a means to undo the unjust distribution of land ownings following a history of white colonialism. Here as well we see that a right may become a wrong: while it may undo one injustice of distribution it creates other injustices (e.g. poverty resulting from ineffective production due to losses of economies of scale and of knowhow).

One last example: immigration restrictions are sometimes justified by the claim that would-be immigrants have a right to flourish in their countries of origin. People don’t want to migrate unless they’re forced by circumstances, it is said. Relaxation of immigration laws is then supposedly a second best option compared to solving the problems in origin countries that create the push for immigration in the first place. So instead of allowing people to migrate we should try to protect their rights where they now live. Needless to say that this approach makes those would-be migrants worse off, and probably not only in the short run. Looser immigration laws have immediate benefits for the migrants, but they can also improve the rights situation in their home countries, for example through remittances and cultural exchange.

Human Rights Promotion (3): When Human Rights Leave a Bad Taste in Your Mouth

Take for instance capital punishment. Human rights defenders normally reject it. And indeed, if you use your head and look at the data, and if you refine your moral compass, you can’t possibly reach any other conclusion. And yet, most of us, even the most ardent rights defenders, know cases in which they would like to see people die – perhaps even administer the lethal drug themselves. Emotions are hard to reason with. We swallow the logic of human rights, the data and the moral precepts, and yet in doing so they leave a bad taste in our mouths.

There are other cases. Take child labor. We know that it’s detrimental to a child’s education and hence her future prosperity, intellectual development and flourishing. It’s probably also harmful to her health. And yet, we accept it in certain cases because the alternative is even worse. In some place, there may be no education provision worthy of the name, and forcing a child away from work may aggravate the poverty of her family without doing much for the child’s education. Acquiescing in a child’s rights violations is better for her rights than doing nothing.

The same is true with sweatshop labor or the exploitation of poor migrants:

In Lant Pritchett’s view, countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – which employ armies of guest workers, house them in labour camps, forbid them from organising unions, often deny them equal protection under the law and pay them the wages of an underclass – are actually doing more to redress the inequities of the world than western nations that maintain high labour standards but keep migrants out. (source)

In all these cases we’re faced with awful situations, but the alternatives are even worse; or, better, the realistic alternatives. If we could eliminate poverty overnight, open our borders, provide decent education and labor standards to all, and inject a conscience in all employers, we wouldn’t need to swallow dirt and leave a bad taste. But we can’t, not now at least.

Another example is the veil. We should allow Muslim women to dress modestly because we want to respect freedom of religion and because we don’t want to treat those women as lesser human beings who don’t have the agency to stand up against patriarchy and who need to be liberated by us enlightened folk. And yet, at the same time we know that we may be endorsing and promoting a symbol of oppression and thereby oppression itself. We also know that there are women who are forced to hide themselves, but we don’t know which. And finally, we know that dressing modestly renders some activities difficult, and that women as a result may not be able to fully develop themselves. And yet we swallow, because the alternative – forcing all veiled women to uncover – would be worse.

Economic Human Rights (33): Sweatshops

No one’s in favor of sweatshops in developing countries (or elsewhere for that matter). But that doesn’t mean you have to believe that campaigning against them is a good thing. It’s quite possible to simultaneously believe that something is bad and that its disappearance would make things even worse. Generally, people work in the disgusting circumstances of a sweatshop because the alternative is even worse. People tend to select the occupation that’s least harmful and most profitable for them.

So even though sweatshops do indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations – degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures, abuse, exploitation (including sexual exploitation) and child labor – they may be better than the alternatives – a fine world we live in – and the fact that most sweatshop workers aren’t coerced by their employers indicates that this is the case.

Sweatshops insult our western sense of justice because we have a relatively low threshold for injustice. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many people in the Third World would be forced into subsistence farming, scavenging of garbage dumps, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives may offer lower incomes and worse conditions. Campaigning against sweatshops can lead to their closure and force people into the even less appealing alternatives.

That’s why I argue against campaigns and boycotts. However, campaigns don’t have to lead to the closure of sweatshops and loss of jobs, and can even make things better – go figure:

We find that anti-sweatshop campaigns led to large real wages increases for targeted enterprises. We also examine whether higher wages led these firms to cut employment or relocate elsewhere. The results suggest that there were some costs in terms of reduced investment, falling profits, and increased probability of closure for smaller plants, but we fail to find significant effects on employment. (source, source)

A successful multinational may be profitable enough to be able to afford wage increases [as a response to campaigns], and may prefer to take wage increases on the chin rather than move its business around. (source)

Economic Human Rights (21): Sweatshops

Sweatshops don’t have a very good reputation. They impose degrading working conditions, low salaries, and long hours, and they expose workers to harmful materials, hazardous situations and extreme temperatures. In many cases, the workers are young women who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation – including sexual exploitation – by their bosses. On top of that, many sweatshops violate child labor laws. Hence, sweatshops have been called a form of modern slavery, and not without reason. They indeed look like a microcosm of human rights violations.

Most, but not all, sweatshops are situated in the third world countries, where labor regulations are lax, salaries low and trade unions not very powerful. Third world countries also don’t have a high level of technology intensity in industrial production, making it profitable to employ manual labor. Western companies often outsource high technology factories in the West to low technology sweatshops in the South. In the West, sweatshops also exist, but mostly in the illegal economy.

However, many economists who can’t possibly be accused of heartlessness or indifference when it comes to the problem of global poverty, have defended them. There’s for example Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Nicholas D. Kristof. They argue that the alternatives in many countries are worse. Sweatshops may insult our western sense of justice, but that’s because our economies offer in general much higher standards of work. In third world countries, sweatshops are a step forward for many people. Without the opportunity to work in a sweatshop, many of them would be forced into subsistence farming, garbage scavenging, begging or even prostitution. All these alternatives offer lower incomes and worse conditions.

Furthermore, many of the young women working in sweatshops see their employment as a way out of gender discrimination. It’s a form of liberation from the oppressive local and traditional systems in their rural hometowns. They move to larger industrial towns, earn a living, have their own rooms, and as a result they can escape an early (and often arranged) marriage and early motherhood. And without the burden of an early marriage and motherhood, they can develop their education.

Developing countries starting their manufacturing sectors in the form of sweatshops, can expect improvements elsewhere in their economy:

The growth of manufacturing has a ripple effect throughout the economy. The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise. Paul Krugman

So it’s probably not a good idea to try and abolish sweatshops, or to boycott products produced in sweatshops. We may do more harm than good when we force people out of sweatshops and into other types of employment. What we have to do, however, is to promote better labor standards and working conditions in existing sweatshops, and do so realistically. Demanding immediate implementation of western standards is silly, given the level of development of third world economies, and would result in the end of sweatshops. But western companies that use or trade with sweatshops can be pressured to do something about the worst aspects of sweatshop labor.