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Low Cost Foreign Labor Practices: Good Business or Unethical Practice?

First let me tell you something about the way we work and what we are paid. There are two kinds of work- regular, which is salary work, and piecework. The regular work week pays about $6.00 a week and the girls have to be at their machines at 7:00 in

the morning and stay at them until 8:00 at night, with just one half hour for lunch in that time. The shops. Well, there is just one row of machines that the daylight ever even gets to – the front row, nearest the window. The girls at the other rows of machines in the back of the shop work by lamplight, both day and night. The bosses yell at the girls and call them down worse than even the Negro slaves in the South were, I imagine. The shops are unsanitary – that’s the word that is generally used, but there ought to be a worse one used. At the beginning of slow seasons, $2.00 is deducted from our salaries. Most of us don’t even know why this is done. The excerpt from above was written by Clara Leimlich and can be found in the book Out of the Sweatshop: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and paints a very bleak picture of sweatshops and what takes place inside of them. However, the question that must be asked is American business and other global business juggernauts taking advantage of low cost labor in foreign nations, or are they simply providing these countries with labor opportunities that they wouldn’t normally have? This essay will discuss the use of low cost foreign labor from both perspectives, as well as providing some pros and cons of each side.

So, who are these individuals that sacrifice so much in such poor conditions for so little? Immigrants who work in sweatshops tend to be women and children. In fact, more than 85% of sweatshop workers are women (usually between the ages of 15 and 22), and these women come from foreign countries to find a better life. When these women come to America to live free lives than in their home country, many find themselves working illegally in sweatshops. They cannot find better jobs, and usually these are the first opportunities for employment that they encounter. The same goes for immigrant children. Their families come to America and are in need of money; thus, the child tries to do his/her part and help the family by working in a sweatshop. The citizens of third-world countries also find themselves in the same situation. They are poor and need jobs in order to survive. Therefore, they subject themselves to the working conditions of sweatshops. This also works out well for the sweatshop owners and supervisors. It is much easier for them to control women and children within the sweatshops. The supervisors can use abuse to bust the workers into shape, and to get them to produce more. As terrible as it is, these people believe that they are better than the workers are; thus, they have the right given to them to abuse the workers. One would ask why the workers remain in a sweatshop if they are treated so poorly; what is stopping them from leaving the sweatshop? They remain for a variety of reasons. One includes the fact that they need the job. They need the money, as little as it may be, in order to survive; it is better to live a penniless existence than to not live at all.

Though many people believe that sweatshops and the use of low cost foreign labor is an exploitation of men, women, and children in third world countries, many other individuals feel that these services are beneficial to the people. Take into consideration cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is defined as a principle that a human’s beliefs and activities make sense in terms of his or her own culture. What may be immoral in one country may be perfectly moral and ethical in another. From the business perspective of a cultural relativism ethicist, one must consider a number of different things. Businesses must take that specific countries views on what age classifies an individual as a child, what age does that country expect children to go to work at, and what is considered a reasonable wage for that region or area. Businesses that plan to play a role in the global market must be familiar with variations in cultures of different countries and adapt their work environment to each culture.

Another pro of the use of low cost labor is from the perspective of social responsibility. Individuals who support this theory would state that sweatshops and labor camps provide financial opportunities in countries that are stricken with poverty and it helps establish economies in these poor countries. From this perspective, businesses state that not only are they helping the people of these countries earn more money than if they were working somewhere else, or not at all, but that they are providing their consumers with the lower priced goods that they demand. Looking through this person’s eyes, one would see that they appear to be doing a great good for a great number.

However, it is more likely that most individuals would side with those that say the use of low cost foreign labor and sweatshops is wrong. American citizens argue that these individuals are not treated humanely or ethically and also that these jobs are being taken away from us and given to other countries because they work at lower costs. American’s tend to see things from a cultural absolutism point of view which states that business should do what is best for all countries regardless of the variable laws and regulations in those foreign lands. Considering this, the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits U.S. companies from offering or providing payments to officials of foreign governments for the purpose of retaining business abroad. The United States generally practices concern for global human rights and there are constantly stories in the news about child labor, low wage payments, and abuse in foreign factories. Many large corporations such as Kathie Lee trademark items, Nike, and others have been hurt because it has been brought to the public attention that their products are produced by women and children working in these sweatshops. Businesses must continue to walk a fine line in using foreign labor to cut costs.

Considering the use of low cost foreign labor from a utilitarian ethical standpoint, one would most likely conclude that the greatest good is not being served for the greatest number. More people are being mistreated and forced into working in conditions that are not fit or suitable for any human to work in. One of today’s most highly debated issues is the case for/against the sweatshop industry. Many groups out there do what they can to eliminate the sweatshop industry and create a more ethical alternative for product production. Some of these groups include Co-Op America, CorpWatch, United Students against Sweatshops, and Sweatshop Watch. These groups, each with its own similar but different methods of spreading its beliefs, are doing whatever they feel necessary to end sweatshops in the US and abroad. These groups’ main goals are to educate people on the subject and tell people what they can do in order to make a difference. Often times the groups will encourage people to form protests or to boycott sweatshop made goods. They often offer ways for people to directly communicate with a company to express their feelings.

In conclusion, I must admit that I do have a different perspective on the use of low cost foreign labor and sweatshops. Before writing this paper, I would have said that sweatshops are bad, unethical, and immoral. However, after considering the belief that if these companies did not locate in these poverty stricken areas, these people would either not be working, or may be even working in conditions worse than the ones offered by these organizations. It is quite possible that these global businesses do provide these countries with some form of economy that allows these individuals to live better financial lives than what they could without them. Nonetheless, I cannot say that I totally agree with this concept. Although the companies may be able to pay a lower wage than they can workers here in the United States, they should still be responsible enough to provide their workers with conditions that you and I would consider reasonable, even if the countries laws and regulations do not require them to do so. Child labor, sweatshops, and the like will continue to be a part of our culture and a sign of the times for many years to come. Some stories may be bad, some may be good, but the fact is, they are here to stay.