Sweatshops, Labor Rights, and Labor Standards
Work is a central part of the human existence. Over the centuries, the way work has been structured has taken many forms. Today, most people work as employees for employers that range from small business, to non-profit organizations, to government bodies, to multinational corporations. The employment relationship varies greatly, both in the United States and abroad. Some employers view employees as a valuable human resource, treat their workers with respect and dignity, and provide reasonable compensation and benefits. At the other end of the spectrum are employers who aggressively exploit their workers, violating basic human rights, and even keeping them in virtual bondage. For society, the way in which employers treat their employees is a fundamental question of ethics. Do workers have certain rights that all employers are obliged to recognize or should this relationship be governed by the most exploitive kind of capitalism in which workers are viewed as a variable in the production equation whose costs must be continually lowered?
In 1998, the International Labour Organization (ILO), a tripartite agency of the United Nations, adopted the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and rights at Work, declaring that all governments, employers, and workers’ organizations have a responsibility to uphold basic human values vital to our social and economic lives. The Declaration covered four specific areas: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of forced and compulsory labor; the abolition of child labor, and elimination of discrimination in the workplace. This declaration equates workers rights and human rights, creating an ethical framework within which employers around the world are expected to operate. Unfortunately, the profit motive often motivates employers to disregard these standards and violate the human rights of their employees.
Globalization has made the experiences of workers in developing countries more relevant to developed countries than it has ever been. Affluent countries import a significant percentage of their goods from overseas. This presents a tremendous opportunity for these countries to influence the work and employment practices of countries that do not respect the human rights of their workers. Through their governments, their corporations, and their buying practices, developed countries can address issues like child labor, forced labor, and workplace discrimination in the nations from which they buy goods. Deciding whether to use this influence to address these problems is very much an ethical decision that developed countries face.
Extensive violations of workers’ rights do not only happen abroad. Workers’ organizations in the United States claim that employers consistently and aggressively violate the human rights of their employees by intimidating them into forgoing union representation. Leading corporations like Wal-Mart continually violate the employment and labor laws in this country and receive little in the way of punishment. These abuses are regularly noted by human rights groups who monitor workers’ issues.
The Sweatshops, Labor Rights, and Labor Standards Interest Group will focus on the ethics of work, employment, and employment relations, both in the U.S. and around the world. This broad subject would include issues such as sweatshops, labor standards, right to free association, forced labor, workplace safety and health, and the provision of health care. And it would examine the work and employment institutions created domestically and internationally (government agencies, employers, unions, transnational organizations, etc.) to determine the role they play in insuring that employees’ rights are protected.
The Interest Group would endeavor to bring together faculty and students who share an interest in this area but who come from different disciplines. It would provide opportunities (through periodic meetings) for these individuals to read about and discuss new developments and new research on the issue of workers rights in the U.S. and in other countries. It would also bring speakers to campus to address related issues. In addition, it would support the on-going activities of faculty and students currently involved in initiatives related to workers rights, including a planned Teach-In on the employment practices of Wal-Mart and the debut of a new documentary film on that multinational retailer to be held in early November. And it would encourage student groups like United Students Against Sweatshops and the Student Labor Action Project that are just forming on campus to further explore the subject of worker rights and the ethical issues related that that subject.