Sweatshops.  When we hear the word we cringe.  What a horrid, disgusting, and awful reality in our world.  People oppressed, poorly paid, overworked, and generally disparaged.  This is often what you hear from those whose consciences have been pricked and who want to help people in third world countries who work in sweatshops.  But is this the whole truth?  Is it always true that every sweatshop is run by evil CEOs who only care about business and money?  What is the true economic conditions of sweatshops and the reasons they even exist in the first place?

In exploring this issue I am by no means suggesting that oppression of peoples around the world doesn’t exist in businesses with shady or wrong business practices.  Forced labor and slavery have existed for millenium and we should always be concerned to free those who are being taken advantage of and prosecute those who oppress others.  We should be passionate about fighting evil and pursuing justice throughout the world.  But we also must be educated and intelligent in our fight.  Part of that intelligence means learning about the pros and cons of sweatshops.  Here I will compile as many resources on this issue as I can find.  If you have suggestions, please feel free to tell me in the comments area.


Answer the Left-Libertarian Critique of Sweatshops by Matt Zwolinski.

Three Reasons Sweatshops are Good for the Poor video by Matt Zwolinski and links to his other articles.

Why Libertarians Should Oppose Sweatshops Response to Matt by Roderick Long.

In Defense of Sweatshops Response to Long by Daniel Bier

Can Mutually Beneficial Exchanges Be Beneficial? by Sheldon Richman

Do Sweatshops Belong in a Free Market? by Michael Kleen

More on Sweatshops and Free Markets by Michael Kleen

Sweatshops and Social Justice: Can Compassionate Libertarians Agree? by Michael Kleen

Helping the World’s Poor: Buy Some New Clothes by Ben Powell

Which is Worse?  A Sweatshop or You? by Matt Zwolinski

Shouldn’t Sweatshops Do More? by Matt Zwolinski

Sweatshops, Exploitation, and Neglect by Matt Zwolinski

Don’t Get Into a Lather Over Sweatshops by Ben Powell and David Skarbek

Immigrants, Sweatshops, and Standards of Living by Art Carden


The Ethical and Economic Case Against Sweatshop Labor: A Critical Assessment Paper by Benjamin Powell and Matt Zwolinski.  The paper is free to download.
Abstract: During the last decade, scholarly criticism of sweatshops has grown increasingly sophisticated. This article reviews the new moral and economic foundations of these criticisms and argues that they are flawed. It seeks to advance the debate over sweatshops by noting the extent to which the case for sweatshops does, and does not, depend on the existence of competitive markets. It attempts to more carefully distinguish between different ways in which various parties might seek to modify sweatshop behavior, and to point out that there is more room for consensus regarding some of these methods than has previously been recognized. It addresses the question of when sweatshops are justified in violating local labor laws. And it assesses the relevance of recent literature on coercion and exploitation as it applies to sweatshop labor. It concludes with a list of challenges that critics of sweatshops must meet to productively advance the debate.

Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation Paper by Matt Zwolinski.  Free to download.
Abstract: This paper argues that a sweatshop worker’s choice to accept the conditions of his or her employment is morally significant, both as an exercise of autonomy and as an expression of preference. This fact establishes a moral claim against interference in the conditions of sweatshop labor by third parties such as governments or consumer boycott groups. It should also lead us to doubt those who call for MNEs to voluntarily improve working conditions, at least when their arguments are based on the claim that workers have a moral right to such improvement. These conclusions are defended against three objections: 1) that sweatshop workers’ consent to the conditions of their labor is not fully voluntary, 2) that sweatshops’ offer of additional labor options is part of an overall package that actually harms workers, 3) that even if sweatshop labor benefits workers, it is nevertheless wrongfully exploitative.

Structural Exploitation Paper by Matt Zwolinski.  Free to download.
Abstract: It is commonly claimed that workers in sweatshops are wrongfully exploited by their employers. The economist’s standard response to this claim is to point out that sweatshops provide their workers with tremendous benefits, more than most workers elsewhere in the economy receive and more than most of those who complain about sweatshop exploitation provide. Perhaps, though, the wrongfulness of sweatshop exploitation is to be found not in the discrete interaction between a sweatshop and its employees, but in the unjust political and economic institutions against which that interaction takes place. This paper tries to assess what role, if any, consideration of background injustice should play in the correct understanding of exploitation. Its answer, in brief, is that it should play fairly little. Structural injustice matters, of course, but it does not typically matter for determining whether a sweatshop is acting exploitatively, and it does not typically matter in a way that grounds any kind of special moral responsibility or fault on the part of sweatshops or the MNEs (Multinational Enterprises) with which they contract.

Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat? Paper by Benjamin Powell and David Skarbek.  Free to download.
Abstract: Many studies have shown that multinational firms pay more than domestic firms in Third World countries. Economists critical of sweatshops have responded that multinational firms’ wage data do not address whether sweatshop jobs are above average because many of these jobs are with domestic subcontractors. In this paper we compare apparel industry wages and the wages of individual firms accused of being sweatshops to measures of the standard of living in Third World economies. We find that most sweatshop jobs provide an above average standard of living for their workers.

Sweatshops, Opportunity Costs, and Non-Monetary Compensation: Evidence from El-Salvador Paper by David Skarbek.  PDF format.
Abstract: Using evidence from field interviews, this paper examines the
alternative employment opportunities of thirty-one sweatshop factory
workers in El Salvador and their perceptions about what types of nonmonetary benefits they receive in their current employment. Interview
subjects provide insights into the benefits of their own and peers’
employments, their next-best alternative employment, and other aspects of
total compensation. We find that workers’ perceive factory employment to
provide more desirable compensation along several margins


Top 3 Ways Sweatshops Help the Poor Escape Poverty

The Unbelievable Truth About Sweatshops  Ben Powell, economics professor at Suffolk University, explains the benefits of sweatshops.  Learn Liberty video.

Sweatshop Wages and Third World Workers: Are the Wages Worth the Sweat?  Lecture by Professor Ben Powell of Suffolk University.


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