Wages and Coercion

Now that you’ve read the papers by Maitland and Arnold & Bowie, we’ll take a look at their discussion and what it recommends that we do with regard to the use of sweatshop labor by multinational corporations and other businesses.

The first things that usually come to mind when we hear the word “sweatshop” are people working in a cramped environment doing menial labor in a dingy factory. We also associate low pay, long hours, and nearly slave-like conditions with the term “sweatshop.” These images are the ones that we have been shown on television and other forms of media by people who have the goal of inflaming our imaginations and our emotions. Maitland gives us at least some reason to think that this isn’t the appropriate view to take.

Wages: Disrespectfully Low, Voluntarily Accepted, or Both?

The wages paid to people in sweatshops are notoriously low by Western standards. It’s one of the main factors that makes people in the USA so shocked by sweatshops. We are accustomed to thinking of a minimum wage in the $7 per hour range, and we are aghast upon hearing that sweatshop workers are working for less than a single dollar per hour.

Maitland makes the case that these wages are less bad than they sound. They sound unconscionably low in the context of US wages and prices, but they are generally quite a bit higher than comparable jobs in their area. As with many issues in the field of applied ethics, we must be careful to examine the facts in the context in which they exist. If a worker has the option of working in a sweatshop making products for the American market while making higher than average wages, then it makes sense for them to take the job that pays more. If workers cite “high wages” as a reason to work at the sweatshop, then it seems we might just be wrong when we claim that their wages are too low. After all, they have weighed their options and chosen this line of work over the other possibilities. They’ve taken the jobs voluntarily.

Arnold, Bowie, and Kant’s Respect for Persons

Of course, this isn’t the end of the argument. Arnold and Bowie make the case that it doesn’t matter that the workers are satisfied with their wages. They make the valid point that acceptance of a set of circumstances does not equate to that set of circumstances being morally acceptable. They might be wrong to be satisfied with their plight.

These authors draw on the work of Immanuel Kant. As we discussed in Module 2, Kant’s philosophy focuses on doing your duty, and we can discern our duties using the categorical imperative. Another way of understanding Kant’s philosophy is to say that we must always respect persons because they are rational beings. In essence, each of us is a rational person. We expect other people to respect us, and this means we must respect them, too. After all, the maxim “respect persons” must be universal if it’s to be any good to us.  This might sound simple, but it requires actions of us that we might otherwise try to avoid. As Arnold and Bowie point out, Kant’s arguments require that we not be indifferent to other people. We must always treat them in the way that their dignity requires. This might mean that we cannot be indifferent to the plight of the workers in sweatshops. They are persons, and their dignity requires that we look after them. Perhaps we must look after them even when they voluntarily accept a job that we know is worse than it should be.1

Arnold and Bowie use this argument to bolster their own claim that multinational entities are responsible for the way that their contractors treat their employees, and that this means they must ensure that their employees are treated with dignity. This might mean that they must pay their employees at least a “living wage,” but it at least means that they must make sure that their employees are not impoverished even while they are working a tremendous number of hours each week. Effectively, this means that multinationals and sweatshops have a moral obligation to improve the wages for which their employees work.

This might seem as though we are asking too much. The wages that the sweatshop workers are getting were the wages that they agreed to, and those wages are part of the bargaining between sweatshops and businesses. Both the business and the sweatshop need to make a profit on the transaction, and the market (in part) dictates what the prices must be for these contracts. All of the actors in the equation are acting in accordance with free market forces, and a capitalist would say that this is an ideal situation. The problem is that the situation is not an ideal one at all. The workers are working a huge number of hours for fairly low pay, the sweatshop owners are (in some cases) not making very high profits because they’re in competition with every other production facility in the world, and the multinational business is able to sell their products at a markup of several hundred percent. It certainly seems like only one of these parties is doing well on these transactions.


There is another factor in play, here. Sweatshop supporters might be able to point to the voluntariness of the agreement between the factory owner and the employee, and this is a powerful argument because we all value autonomy over our life decisions, but it might just be the case that these decisions are not voluntary enough to count as autonomous. There might be a great deal of coercion involved in the agreement. A coerced agreement is very close to no agreement at all.

The most familiar sort of coercion is physical coercion. We are all familiar with the case of a mugger who demands “Your money, or your life!” This is a clear case of physical coercion because the mugger wants to use you as an instrument (a means) to his goal (end): getting your money. As you’ll remember from Kant, “we must only treat others as ends in themselves and never merely as a means.” The mugger uses you as a mere means to his end, and that is breaking a fundamental tenet of morality.

This isn’t the only sort of coercion, however. Arnold and Bowie set out the following definition of psychological coercion:

For psychological coercion to take place, three conditions must hold. First, the coercer must have a desire about the will of his or her victim. However, this is a desire of a particular kind because it can only be fulfilled through the will of another person. Second, the coercer must have an effective desire to compel his or her victim to act in a manner that makes efficacious the coercer's other regarding desire. …In order for coercion to take place, the coercer must be successful in getting his or her victim to conform to his or her other regarding desire.2

In a case of psychological coercion, the coercer will attempt to replace your desires with his own. This sort of coercion happens more than we might think, but it isn’t always easy to spot. It might arise when a manager threatens to fire you if you don’t work overtime or if you don’t meet some ludicrously high quota. The threat to fire you (or not pay you or whatever) does the same kind of work on your will that the mugger’s gun does on your body. It threatens to take away something that you think is very important, and the risk of losing that important thing is perhaps enough to compel you to accept working the overtime or striving to meet the quota. Your will is held hostage to your employer. This is immoral in exactly the same way that the mugger’s threat is immoral.

So, are sweatshop workers psychologically coerced? Maybe they are. They live in a situation of massive unemployment. Losing this job would be a hardship that they might not be able to overcome. These reasons are probably enough to keep a worker in their seat making jeans for days at a time even if they’re not being paid very much and they’re very unhappy with their plight. If they’re being coerced, then there is very little substance to the claim that they accept and keep their jobs voluntarily. 

1. Denis G. Arnold and Norman E. Bowie, "Sweatshops and Respect for Persons." In Ethical Theory and Business 8th Edition, ed. by Tom L. Beauchamp, Norman E. Bowie, and Denis G. Arnold (New Jersey: Pearson, 2009.), 610.

2. ibid, 614.