How Not to Help Sweatshop Workers

You hear that H&M buys shirts from a factory in Bangladesh that works its employees long hours under harsh conditions and low pay. What’s the moral thing to do?

Should you publicly shame the company for its iniquitous practices? Call on the government to improve wages and working conditions? Buy your shirts from someone else? Propose that the company raise prices so workers can get paid more?

Actually, if you really want to be socially responsible, the first thing to do is be as sure as possible that actual harm — from the perspective of the workers themselves — is taking place.

Freeman writer Ben Powell addresses the consequences of outright bans in this video and short essay.

As long as the workers are there by choice, they consider themselves better off with a “sweatshop” job than without one. Banning sweatshops pushes poor people into worse alternatives and slows economic development to boot.

So what’s the alternative?


The public-shaming option is the method of comedian John Oliver. Comedy is a powerful manipulator of public opinion, whatever the entertainer’s ideology, but don’t expect a fair analysis. Oliver mocks and demonizes some big companies for getting their clothes from factories in developing countries to sell at low prices in the West.

He assumes that the low-priced clothing…