Waylaid Dialectic

August 31, 2010

Sweatshops and the fallacy of one choice and just two options

Filed under: Social Justice,Trade — terence @ 8:03 pm
Tags: ,

Well, Bill and Laura may be in abeyance, but the fun and games are continuing over at Aid Watch. Today taking the form of a guest post by Benjamin Powell making the case for sweatshops.

His argument will is a familiar one: poor jobs at poor wages are better than no jobs at all.

Which is correct as far as it goes, but it’s also a perfect illustration of what I’ve (rather inelegantly) decided to call the ‘fallacy of one choice and just two options’. It’s a popular right wing debating technique: either you’re with us or you’re with the enemy; if you’re in favour of protecting the environment then you’re also in favour of ransacking the economy; if you don’t support bombing the s##t out of the Middle East then you’re opposed to fighting terrorism; and if you’re opposed to sweatshops then obviously you’re in favour of protectionism and joblessness for people currently employed in them.

The thing is, in every one of these instances, there’s more than two choices: I am against you and your enemies; I’m in favour of protecting the environment by re-gearing the economy; I think terrorism is better fought through police work, and a political settlement over Israel/Palestine, combined maybe with targeted intervention.

And in the case of sweatshops: I want the workers to stay employed. But I also want their jobs and conditions to improve. Call it the third way, if you will.

Which means supporting initiatives to strengthen workers’ political rights in developing countries, and, particularly when this isn’t possible, sending a signals through the market via purchasing decisions (like buying fair trade), and maybe, just maybe, using trade rules, although only if this isn’t going to have major unintended consequences.

Sweatshops or unemployment – two lousy options. But the thing is, they’re not the only ones. And development, if it means anything, surely means trying to improve the options people have.


  1. Two thumbs up! I’m so tired of the this or that discussions also. Trade vs aid is another one of those. Seeing things as black and white, good and bad is so, well, American. Let’s get beyond the zero sum game and mature a bit to understanding complexities. Thanks for your post!

    Comment by Linda Raftree — September 1, 2010 @ 5:33 am

  2. Thanks Linda, although to be fair it’s certainly not a uniquely American phenomenon. Back home in New Zealand we have plenty of it too. 🙂

    Comment by terence — September 1, 2010 @ 5:59 am

  3. ha ha, oops. that was so ethnocentric of me to assume you were American! 🙂 sorry!

    Comment by Linda Raftree — September 1, 2010 @ 6:10 am

  4. Outstanding.

    I agree – It may be difficult, it may be expensive… but there is almost always another option.

    Comment by J. — September 1, 2010 @ 6:18 am

  5. Thanks J. – maybe difficult, maybe expensive, maybe going to fail. But always at least worth factoring into the discussion.

    Comment by terence — September 1, 2010 @ 8:01 am

  6. Yes, and the “sweatshop jobs or unemployment” dichotomy is willfully ahistorical — it assumes that a mass of urbanised and poor people just appeared, rather than being the result of the distribution of land, capital and other resources, and in some cases being deliberately engineered by those in power. Think of enclosure in 18th-century Britain generating an army to feed the dark satanic mills — a process which I vaguely understand has some parallels in contemporary China.

    Comment by Simon — September 1, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: