The Jewish Ethicist: Sweatshops.
Is it ethical to buy from low-wage suppliers?
Q. Many consumer products are made in third world countries in sweatshop conditions. Is buying these products exploiting the workers? Or perhaps it is actually helping them, because it provides them with work and gives them a chance to improve living conditions? What about the effect on local workers?
A. The foreign sweatshop debate has raged for generations. Organized labor has traditionally demanded better working conditions not only in the home country, but also abroad; cynics have complained that this demand is really a way of fending off low-cost foreign competition which benefits consumers.
A verse from Leviticus (25:14) can help focus the debate: "And when you sell something to your fellow, or buy from the hand of your fellow, don't exploit each one his brother."
The simple meaning of the verse is that we shouldn't exploit each other in commerce by charging an unfair price. But Rashi's commentary points out that the verse contains an implicit mandate: when we sell, we should preferably sell to our fellow; when we buy, we should buy from our fellow. In a previous column, we explained that this preference both provides a livelihood for community members and also builds a feeling of connection and solidarity among members of a particular community. [See: Malicious Merchant] Many authorities have stated that we should even pay a premium in order to do business with fellow community members, thus making economic relations complement social ones. (1)
The critical question then becomes: who is my "fellow"? My neighbor? My fellow citizen? Any fellow human being? In past generations this question was easier to answer, because both practically and emotionally mutual awareness and concern could exist only among those who were close by. In the age of globalization, many people believe that it is both practical and obligatory to view all humans as our "fellows"; others worry that this approach carries the danger that existing, functional community relationships will be weakened in favor of a still-hypothetical "community of man," resulting in the loss of all communal concern.
Presumably what we need is a concentric set of communal relationships, each one on a suitable scale. It is practical for everyone to be concerned with world ecology and global warming, which are truly global problems; conversely, a free loan society for needy individuals in a small neighborhood is practical, but it would be hard to administer one which serves an entire region.
If you believe that consumers in advanced countries can create genuine empathy and solidarity with sweatshop workers in East Asia, considering these distant individuals our "fellows," then it is definitely appropriate for you to take steps, including consumer activism, to promote better working conditions for these workers. Of course we should take care that our steps don't actually work to their detriment, by destroying their livelihood during a prolonged boycott or pricing their goods out of the market.
If you feel that your first concern should be for workers in your own region or country, then you should try when practical to give preference to local manufacturers even if there is a moderate price difference.
In a way, both the stated or cynical understanding of labor groups have relevance. If we do share a sense of community, or worker solidarity, with sweatshop workers in distant countries, then we should be concerned with their working conditions, and not exploit them (as the verse states). If we don't share a sense of community with them, we should try to give precedence to local workers who are our "fellows".
Our aspiration should be for economic relations that harmonize with communal ones; we should engage in buying and selling with our fellows, and avoid exploiting them. When practical, we should either display concern for the workers who make our goods, or buy goods from those workers for whom we can effectively display concern.
(1) Responsa Rema 10.
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