Questioning Sweatshops

I’ve always been against well-meaning western agitations against sweat-shops, in the belief that the sweat-shop workers are agreeing to work in bad working conditions only because the alternative for them is even worse – prostitution, or picking through garbage, for example. It is not right for me to want to deny the poor their best alternative simply because that alternative offends our western sensibilities about working conditions. However - I was watching a report on CTV news last night describing the plight of poor children in New Delhi kidnapped by gangs and made to beg on the street or work in sweat-shops. The report spoke of children, many as young as 8 years old, being kidnapped on their way home from school and being forced to work for years for no money. Their parents sometimes never find out what happened to them. The report claims 3000 children are reported missing each year.

Clearly this is unacceptable, and police should step up their efforts to find the children and apprehend their captors.

But this also makes me wonder about the vulnerability of the concept of consent to workers who are very poor and especially who are very young. If someone is so poor and/or young that they have no way of asserting their legal rights, they will not be able to enforce their side of their employment contract. I’ve heard of employers holding wages from workers for months.

Perhaps there is a role for western donors to help empower poor workers to assert their legal rights. This would be a much more constructive direction to take than trying to shut down all sweat-shops, good and bad.