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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2011

Matt Zwolinski
Philosophy, University of San Diego


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 Multinational Enterprises with which they contract.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2012

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1 “Wrongful exploitation” will appear to some to be a redundant phrase. I explain why it is not in footnote 5. “Sweatshop” will appear to some to be a term that conveys moral opprobrium but little in the way of semantic content. Though sympathetic with the complaint, I attempt to define the term more precisely in Section IV. For a sampling of scholarly criticism of sweatshops, see Arnold, Denis G., “Exploitation and the Sweatshop Quandary,” Business Ethics Quarterly 13, no. 2 (2003)Google Scholar; Arnold, Denis G. and Bowie, Norman E., “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons,” Business Ethics Quarterly 13, no. 2 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mayer, Robert, “Sweatshops, Exploitation, and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38, no. 4 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Young, Iris Marion, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” Social Philosophy and Policy 23, no. 1 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Meyers, C. D., “Moral Duty, Individual Responsibility, and Sweatshop Exploitation,” Journal of Social Philosophy 38, no. 4 (2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Snyder, Jeremy C., “Needs Exploitation,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11, no. 4 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Exploitation and Sweatshop Labor: Perspectives and Issues,” Business Ethics Quarterly 20, no. 2 (2010)Google Scholar.

2 For evidence that sweatshop wages tends to exceed—sometimes greatly—wages in non-sweatshop jobs, see Maitland, Ian, “The Great Non-Debate Over International Sweatshops,” in Beauchamp, Tom L. and Bowie, Norman E., ed., Ethical Theory and Business (Engelwood Cliffes: Pretence Hall, 1996; reprint, 2001)Google Scholar; Krugman, Paul, “In Praise of Cheap Labor,” Slate (March 21 1997)Google Scholar; Powell, Benjamin and Skarbek, David, “Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?Journal of Labor Research 27, no. 2 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 I shall have more to say about this point in Section II of this essay, but it is one that is compatible with and explicitly accepted by almost all contemporary theories of exploitation. See, for instance, Wood, Allen W., “Exploitation,” Social Philosophy and Policy 12, no. 2 (1995): 148–49CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wertheimer, Alan, Exploitation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 1416Google Scholar; Sample, Ruth, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 4Google Scholar; Snyder, “Needs Exploitation,” 390; Valdman, Mikhail, “A Theory of Wrongful Exploitation,” Philosophers' Imprint 9, no. 6 (2009): 1Google Scholar.

4 I have argued this point at somewhat greater length in Zwolinski, Matt, “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation,” Business Ethics Quarterly 17, no. 4 (2007): 704–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 I will address this question in this essay with reference to the specific issue of sweatshop labor, but it is worth noting that the question is perfectly general and relevant to a number of other issues of practical concern such as those illustrated in recent debates over organ sales and prostitution, and not-so-recent debates over the legitimacy of interest. See Taylor, James Stacy, Stakes and Kidneys: Why Markets in Human Body Parts are Morally Imperative (New York: Ashgate, 2005)Google Scholar; de Marneffe, Peter, Liberalism and Prostitution (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On the legitimacy of interest, see the debate between the classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat and the socialist-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, available online at

6 I define “wrongful” exploitation in this way because there is a sense of the term “exploitation” that does not connote any wrongdoing on the part of the exploiter, as when a shrewd entrepreneur exploits an opportunity, or when a football coach exploits his opponent's weakness. There is some debate in the literature regarding whether these are two distinct concepts confused by virtue of sharing the same word, or whether it is not the concept of exploitation but its wrongfulness that varies in different contexts. The former view is defended in Wertheimer, Exploitation, 6. The latter in Wood, “Exploitation,” 137–41. For what it is worth, I find Wertheimer's view more persuasive, but think that little of practical or theoretical significance depends on the issue as a general matter, and certainly not in the debate that follows. Unless otherwise noted, all instances of the term “exploitation” in this article will refer to exploitation that is wrongful.

7 See Wertheimer, Exploitation: 17–18.

8 This claim is a bit glib. It is possible that the victim was so overwhelmed by panic that she would have agreed to any offer that would have gotten her out of her immediate danger, regardless of its long-term effects on her overall well-being. Or, she may be a trained lawyer, familiar with the doctrine of unconscionability, who realized that the rescuer's proposal would never be enforced in a court of law. Revealed preferences are in most cases a good indicator of an agent's interests, but nothing in my argument requires that they be perfect indicators.

9 The former approach is defended most notably in Wertheimer, Exploitation. Also in Valdman, “A Theory of Wrongful Exploitation.” The latter approach has been most influentially defended in Wood, “Exploitation” and Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong.

10 See, for a discussion, Wertheimer, Exploitation: chap. 4; Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong, 154–59.

11 Wertheimer, Exploitation.

12 See, for a helpful overview of Marx's theory of exploitation and its challenges, Kymlicka, Will, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 177–87Google Scholar.

13 See, for instance, Cohen, G. A., “The Labor Theory of Value and the Concept of Exploitation,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 8, no. 4 (1979): chap. 4Google Scholar; Arneson, Richard, “What's Wrong with Exploitation?,” Ethics 91, no. 2 (1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Roemer, John E., “Should Marxists Be Interested in Exploitation?Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no. 1 (1985)Google Scholar; Reiman, Jeffrey, “Exploitation, Force, and the Moral Assessment of Capitalism: Thoughts on Roemer and Cohen,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 16, no. 1 (1987)Google Scholar; Roemer, John E., “What is Exploitation? Reply to Jeffrey Reiman,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 18, no. 1 (1989)Google Scholar. Again, for a helpful overview see Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction: 177–87.

14 See, for instance, Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong, chap. 4.

15 Snyder, “Exploitation and Sweatshop Labor: Perspectives and Issues,” 191.

16 Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong, 97–98.

17 Ibid., 74.

18 Young, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” 120.

19 Ibid., 119–25.

20 O'Neill, Onora, “Between Consenting Adults,” in Constructions of Reason (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 273–4Google Scholar.

21 Human Resources Division U.S. General Accounting Office, “Sweatshops in the U.S.: Opinions on Their Extent and Possible Enforcement Options,” (Washington, D.C., 1988)Google Scholar.

22 A brief, helpful overview of the history of sweatshops and recent developments can be found in Arnold, Denis and Hartman, Laura, “Moral Imagination and the Future of Sweatshops,” Business and Society Review 108, no. 4 (2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Aitken, Brian, Harrison, Ann, and Lipsey, Robert, “Wages and Foreign Ownership: A Comparative Study of Mexico, Venezuela, and the United States,” Journal of International Economics 40 (1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Powell and Skarbek, “Sweatshops and Third World Living Standards: Are the Jobs Worth the Sweat?” The “sweatshops” examined in this study were those that were identified as sweatshops by anti-sweatshop activists quoted in the popular press. See p. 267.

25 Arnold and Bowie, “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons,” 234. See also Arnold and Hartman, “Moral Imagination and the Future of Sweatshops,” 453, n. 1; and Beyond Sweatshops: Positive Deviancy and Global Labour Practices,” Business Ethics: A European Review 14, no. 3 (2005): 207Google Scholar; and Worker Rights and Low Wage Industrialization: How to Avoid Sweatshops,” Human Rights Quarterly 28, no. 3 (2006): 677, n. 1Google Scholar; Arnold, Denis, “Working Conditions: Safety and Sweatshops,” in Brenkert, George and Beauchamp, Tom, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 645Google Scholar.

26 Though, to be fair, the anecdotes regarding the likely alternatives to sweatshop labor for workers in the developing world are no less shocking. See, for instance, Nicholas' Kristof's account of children scavenging in the garbage dumps of Phnom Penh in Kristof, Nicholas D., “Where Sweatshops are a Dream,” New York Times (January 14, 2009)Google Scholar.

27 See, for discussion, the essays in Varley, Pamela, The Sweatshop Quandary: Corporate Responsibility on the Global Frontier (Washington, DC: Investor Responsibility Research Center, 1998)Google Scholar. A discussion of some of the more shocking accounts can be found in Arnold and Bowie, “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons,” 228–33.

28 The argument that follows is made at greater length by Benjamin Powell in Powell, Benjamin, “In Reply to Sweatshop Sophistries,” Human Rights Quarterly 28, no. 4 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 Like all economic generalizations, this is a rule of thumb and not a necessary law. Denis Arnold and Laura Hartman have often stressed that the exercise of “moral imagination” by managers is capable of yielding solutions that improve working conditions without raising costs to employers, and document a number of cases where such improvements have been made. See Arnold, Denis, Hartman, Laura, and Wokutch, Richard E., Rising Above Sweatshops: Innovative Approaches to Global Labor Challenges (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2003)Google Scholar; Arnold and Hartman, “Beyond Sweatshops: Positive Deviancy and Global Labour Practices.”; and “Moral Imagination and the Future of Sweatshops.”

30 Powell, Ben and Clark, J., “Guatemala Sweatshops: Employee Evidence on Working Conditions,” Department of Economics (Boston, MA: Suffolk University, 2010)Google Scholar. The survey was conducted on employees of Nicotex and Sam Bridge, chosen because those firms were identified as sweatshops and protested by the National Labor Committee.

31 Arnold and Bowie, “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons,” 227–28. See also Arnold and Hartman, “Worker Rights and Low Wage Industrialization: How to Avoid Sweatshops,” 686–90.

32 Arnold, “Working Conditions: Safety and Sweatshops,” 638.

33 Arnold and Hartman, “Worker Rights and Low Wage Industrialization: How to Avoid Sweatshops,” 688–89.

34 Little has been written in the extant literature on the moral issues surrounding labor law violations. I address the issue in a preliminary way in a paper written with Benjamin Powell. See Zwolinski, Matt and Powell, Ben, “The Ethical and Economic Case for Sweatshop Labor: A Critical Assessment,” (San Diego: University of San Diego, 2011)Google Scholar.

35 Wertheimer, Exploitation: 230. I should stress, however, that Wertheimer puts forward the model of a hypothetical competitive market only as a model of fairness and only as one that is plausible in “a certain range of cases.” There has been an unfortunate tendency in the literature, I think, to single out this idea as the core of a general theory of fairness and of exploitation. Construed as such, as numerous commentators have pointed out, it is barely plausible. But Wertheimer's book, as I read it, does not attempt to set out any general theory of the unfairness that lies at the heart of exploitation. Commentators who focus too narrowly on the model of competitive markets are thus likely to miss the rich and context-sensitive analysis that pervades the remainder of the book, where Wertheimer reaches penetrating insights about fairness without attempting to squeeze them into an overarching theory.

36 Ibid., 4–5, 216–23.

37 Denis Arnold has asserted that sweatshop employers often have monopsony power over workers, but offers no evidence in support of his claim. See Arnold, “Working Conditions: Safety and Sweatshops,” 651, n. 63. It is, of course, true that sweatshops do not operate in an environment of perfect competition, but although he is somewhat imprecise with his terminology, this could hardly have been what Wertheimer had in mind in setting forth a hypothetical competitive market as a model of fairness. After all, in perfectly competitive markets prices are equal to the marginal cost of production and thus profits are zero. But it would be grossly implausible to say that profit as such constitutes sufficient evidence of exploitation. For a more extended discussion of the irrelevance of models of perfect competition to charges of exploitation, see Zwolinski, Matt, “Price Gouging and Market Failure,” in Gaus, Gerald, Lamont, Julian, and Favor, Christi, ed., Essays on Philosophy, Politics & Economics: Integration and Common Research Projects (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010)Google Scholar.

38 Powell, “In Reply to Sweatshop Sophistries,” 1032–33.

39 See Arnold, “Exploitation and the Sweatshop Quandry,” 252–53; Arnold, “Working Conditions: Safety and Sweatshops,” 643.

40 Arnold and Bowie, “Sweatshops and Respect for Persons,” 234.

41 See Sollars, Gordon G. and Englander, Fred, “Sweatshops: Kant and Consequences,” Business Ethics Quarterly 17, no. 1 (2007): 118–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Actually, Denis Arnold and Norman Bowie did write an article in response to Sollars and Englander, but had nothing more to say about the present question than that they felt that Sollars and Englander had ignored some of the claims they had made in defense of their position and had hence failed to engage their argument “in a substantive manner” Arnold, Denis G. and Bowie, Norman E., “Respect for Workers in Global Supply Chains: Advancing the Debate Over Sweatshops,” Business Ethics Quarterly 17, no. 1 (2007): 136–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Having read the passages to which Arnold and Bowie refer in their response, however, it is not at all clear to me what substantive argument or claim they believe Sollars and Englander have ignored.

42 Snyder, “Needs Exploitation,” 390.

43 Ibid., 396.

44 It should be noted, however, that Snyder himself qualifies this obligation in a number of ways, most notably by allowing that competitive pressures may make it impossible for firms to pay as much as they should under more ideal conditions. See ibid., 401.

45 I have discussed this problem before in Zwolinski, “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation,” 707–10; and, The Ethics of Price Gouging,” Business Ethics Quarterly 18, no. 3 (2008): 356–60Google Scholar, and in greater detail in “Exploitation and Neglect,” (San Diego: University of San Diego).

46 The original statement of this concern comes from Alan Wertheimer in Wertheimer, Exploitation: 289–93.

47 See Snyder, Jeremy C., “Efficiency, Equality, and Price Gouging: A Response to Zwolinski,” Business Ethics Quarterly 19, no. 2 (2009): 305–06CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This piece was published in response to my own Zwolinski, Matt, “Price Gouging, Non-Worseness, and Distributive Justice,” Business Ethics Quarterly 19, no. 2 (2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Snyder, “Efficiency, Equality, and Price Gouging: A Response to Zwolinski,” 306. Snyder is actually discussing exploitation as it pertains to price gouging in the quoted material, but I believe, given what he has written about the topic elsewhere, that he would support the extension of his claim to sweatshop labor as well.

49 Actually, Snyder does not quite hold that it is “sufficient.” Several other conditions must be met for the employer to have this duty, but as they do not affect the present argument these need not concern us here.

50 Meyers, Chris, “Wrongful Beneficence: Exploitation and Third World Sweatshops,” Journal of Social Philosophy 35, no. 3 (2004): 324–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 Eisenberg, Melvin, “The Principle of Unconscionability,” in Law and Economics Workshop (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Law School, 2009), 1516Google Scholar.

52 See, for an extended discussion, Chartier, Gary, “Sweatshops, Labor Rights, and Comparative Advantage,” Oregon Review of International Law 10, no. 1 (2008)Google Scholar.

53 Pogge, Thomas W., “World Poverty and Human Rights,” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 1 (2005): 7CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

54 Ibid., 6.

55 Careful consideration of this point is necessary in order to avoid the fallacy that Kevin Carson has described as “vulgar libertarianism,” in which one appeals to the virtues of free markets in order to justify some aspect of the existing social order, thereby failing to recognize or appreciate the extent to which the existing social order is not an ideally free market but a corporatist system in which the powers of government are all-too-frequently used to enhance the power of land and business interests at the expense of the poor and working classes. See, for a discussion, Carson, Kevin A., “Studies in Mutualist Political Economy,” (2007),, chap. 4Google Scholar.

56 See above, Section III.

57 See Wertheimer, Exploitation: 9–10; Valdman, Mikhail, “Exploitation and Injustice,” Social Theory and Practice: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Philosophy 34, no. 4 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong, 74; Roemer, John E., Free to Lose (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 130Google Scholar.

58 Wertheimer, Exploitation, 9.

59 Meyers, “Wrongful Beneficence: Exploitation and Third World Sweatshops,” 324–25.

60 Roemer, Free to Lose, 130.

61 Sample, Exploitation: What it is and Why it's Wrong, 74.

62 This point is argued at greater length by Vladman in Valdman, “Exploitation and Injustice,” 558–65.

63 Young, “Responsibility and global justice: A social connection model,” 114.

64 Ibid., 119.

65 Ibid., 121–23.

66 Snyder, “Exploitation and Sweatshop Labor: Perspectives and Issues,” 195.

67 A more general form of the question I ask here is posed (and answered in the negative) by Wertheimer in Wertheimer, Exploitation, 234.

68 Whether they are blameworthy is a more complicated matter. It is, after all, possible that a deal struck between an MNE and the host country government will produce a situation that is on the whole beneficial to workers. Such cases would then seem to involve a conflict between respect for workers' rights and concern for their welfare, in addition to troublesome issues of distributive justice.

69 I owe this analogy to Alan Wertheimer, in personal conversation.

70 On the one hand, the prostitute would not be subject to coercion if the pimp did not expect people to hire her. Therefore, if everybody refused to hire prostitutes, she would probably not be coerced. Someone who does hire her thus acts as a defector in a kind of collective action problem, and is partially responsible for her plight. On the other hand, the unjust coercion has already taken place. And given that it has taken place, it might very well be the case that the prostitute really does want people to hire her—if they do not, we might suppose, her pimp will make things even worse for her. Failing to hire her is therefore likely only to worsen her situation in the short term, and possibly the long term as well.

71 The discussion which follows benefited tremendously from discussion with Daniel Silvermint, who discusses them in Silvermint, Daniel, “Oppression and Victim Agency,” Philosophy (Tucson: University of Arizona, 2011)Google Scholar.

72 Young, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” 119.

73 Ibid., 118.

74 Ibid., 105.

75 Ibid., 119.

76 Menial clerks in the office of a MNE might be participating in an unjust structure without the power to change it. Wealthy or politically powerful individuals in developed countries might be able to change unjust structures elsewhere despite not being participants in them.

77 Again for a helpful discussion of these issues, see Silvermint, “Oppression and Victim Agency.”

78 This was not always the case. The idea of state exploitation has a rich history among both classical liberal and socialist thinkers that contemporary philosophy appears to have largely lost sight of. Helpful overviews, however, can be found in Liggio, Leonard, “Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1, no. 3 (1977)Google Scholar; Raico, Ralph, “Classical Liberal Exploitation Theory: A Comment on Professor Liggio's Paper,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1, no. 3 (1977)Google Scholar; Long, Roderick, “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class,” Social Philosophy and Policy 15, no. 2 (1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Raico, Ralph, “Liberalism, Marxism, and the State,” Cato Journal 11, no. 3 (1992)Google Scholar; and “Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes,” in Raico, Ralph, ed., Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2010)Google Scholar.

79 O'Neill, “Between Consenting Adults,” 123.

80 Even Marx recognized the potential for this form of exploitation. Witness his discussion of Napoleon's 1851 coup in his pamphlet, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “This executive power, with its enormous bureaucracy and military organization, with its ingenious state machinery, embracing wide strata, with a host of officials numbering half a million, besides an army of another half million, this appalling parasitic body, which enmeshes the body of French society like a net and chokes all its pores, sprang up in the days of the absolute monarchy. The Legitimist monarchy and the July monarchy added nothing but a greater division of labor, growing in the same measure—as the division of labor within bourgeois society created new groups of interests, and therefore new material for slate administration. Every common interest was straightway severed from society, counterposed to it as a higher general interest, snatched from the activity of society's members themselves and made an object of government activity, from a bridge, a schoolhouse and the communal property of a village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national university of France…. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it. The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor … under the second Bonaparte [Napoleon III] … the state [seems] to have made itself completely independent. As against civil society, the state machine has consolidated its position … thoroughly.” Cited in Raico, “Classical Liberal Exploitation Theory: A Comment on Professor Liggio's Paper,” 179–80.

81 The locus classicus of this analysis is Buchanan, James and Tullock, Gordon, The Calculus of Consent (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. More recent explorations can be found in Buchanan, James, Tollison, R. D., and Tullock, Gordon, Toward a Theory of the Rent-Seeking Society (Texas A & M University, College Station, 1980)Google Scholar; Tullock, Gordon, Tollison, R. D., and Rowley, C. K., “The Political Economy of Rent Seeking,” (Boston: Kluwer, 1988)Google Scholar.

82 See, for a discussion, Euzent, Patricia J. and Martin, Thomas L., “Classical Roots of the Emerging Theory of Rent Seeking: The Contribution of Jean-Baptiste Say,” History of Political Economy 16, no. 2 (1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

83 Cudd, Ann, Analyzing Oppression (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

84 Coercion that is employed for paternalistic purposes, for instance, might be unjust but is not exploitative insofar as it does not involve an unfair or degrading advantage-taking. See, for a discussion, Wertheimer, Alan, Coercion, Studies in Moral, Political and Legal Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)Google Scholar.