Sweatshop Automation 

As technology is replacing human labor, humanity is struggling to preserve employment opportunities. While this poses great challenge for the modern employment system, it also presents an opportunity to improve mankind’s relationship with labor. Most importantly, it creates an opportunity to end the exploitation of labor in developing countries.

Heather Broome - November 20, 2021

Today, the competitive cost of sweatshop labor has created a population of desensitized consumers. Many (if not most) consumers have ignored undeniable exploitation with the belief that sweatshops are the only way to simultaneously maintain satisfactory consumption and comfort. Well-known companies have addressed the concerns of their production practices by running phony, hypocritical campaigns and flaunting their interest in morality, equality, and sustainability, hoping to prevent their customers from questioning production practices. Even consumers that understand the prevalence of immoral production are eager to claim that they are right for keeping underpaid workers employed, while commonly clinging to the erroneous claim that there is simply no solution to this growing problem. The truth is, designing a plan that can free and support sweatshop workers and enlighten the consumer population could begin a revolution to relieve the work of the enslaved. If efforts would be made to automate sweatshops and provide accordingly for the resulting unemployed population, then every enslaved human in this world could be freed. However, humanity must be ready for this challenge.

Before discussing solutions, it is important to address the significance of this subject matter. Understanding the magnitude of sweatshop labor cruelty is crucial. Sweatshops make the poorest of the world poorer and the richest of the world richer. Buying from these shops leads to the exploitation of poorer citizens and undocumented immigrants, especially women and children. As written in How Do Sweatshops Affect Communities, “Sweatshops prey on the poorest men, women, and children in developing nations. They are fooled into thinking they will get a living wage which will help them pay for all essentials and have enough money to escape the poverty cycle; however in reality they are pushed further into the cycle.” Many developing countries do not have laws protecting workers from cruelty and exploitation. As a result of this, companies target these countries by moving their factories there. These companies pay workers negligible wages and then sell the product for much more, maximizing their profit at the expense of human lives. In the push to cut costs, many of these factories are built improperly and have no natural light, safety equipment, or even indoor plumbing. Necessary equipment like fire extinguishers and emergency exits are commonly missing. Events like the Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,134 workers continue to happen, while those who create these conditions face no consequences aside from increased praise and abundance. This year, 52 sweatshop workers were killed in a factory fire, where they were locked inside to avoid them being able to leave work throughout the day. Also this year, 28 people were killed by drowning or electrocution in a flooded sweatshop in Morocco. Unfortunately, stories similar to this are abundant. They are common, yet ignored. The oppression that is accepted at the price of comforting the upper and middle class should receive significantly more attention and concern than it has.

Furthermore, The wages paid by these factories are well below living standards. Hourly wages are as low as 13¢ an hour in Bangladesh, 26¢ in Vietnam, 34¢ in Indonesia, 44¢ in China, and 49¢ in Haiti. According to Shontae Saddlar, “Many workers are forced to work 14–16 hours a day seven days a week, with some finishing late at 4 a.m. only to start at 8 a.m." The workers in these sweatshops also face extreme abuse beyond their pay. “They would slap them, pull them by the hair, kick them off their stools,” a female worker in Bangladesh said. “The management would hire thugs outside of work to intimidate her, and would threaten her on the phone with things like abduction, killing her, and tearing her clothes off.” Today's heightened enjoyment of overconsumption allows people to mindlessly dismiss these claims by considering them to be lies, dramatizations, or simply meaningless perspectives, and the bandwagon effect makes them even easier to ignore. 

It is hard to propose ways to make people care more. Even seeing photos of these conditions creates wildfires of mockery across social media. For example, videos spread across TikTok of Shein customers receiving notes in their clothing packages asking for help. (appended) Messages such as "help me" and "I have dental pain" were allegedly written on pieces of paper and tags within clothing. Regardless of the validity of these claims, the immediate wave of mockery, especially towards children in sweatshops, is concerning. Even some of the most self-righteous creators weighed in with jokes. Why? Because the pain of others is convenient for them. Not only does the majority of their online experience validate their lack of concern for the matter, but people also feel as if they cannot afford morally resourced products. There is a growing problem with both low wages and overconsumption, and these problems must be addressed by a larger plan. People need to feel as if they have a choice, while also accepting that they had a choice all along. At the end of the day, having five pairs of jeans should not be more important to someone than the treatment of the people who made those jeans. Fashion should never be regarded as being more important than human life. 

It is also important to understand why enslavement has been ignored by consumers and why moral hypocrisy plagues many developed societies. The first reason is pure selfishness. A consumer is far less likely to care about the mistreatment or pain of others unless it is directly impacting them. Sweatshops are almost entirely run by the labor of undocumented immigrants or citizens of developing countries. Racism towards these workers and ignorance of their experience leads millions of consumers to feel completely disconnected from their pain. Despite what the general population would like to admit, these people are usually considered less than human when compared to the citizens of developed countries. Furthermore, consumers do not directly see the long and painful work of those creating their products and therefore are less inclined to care. Exposing the reality of sweatshop labor to consumers and presenting the possibilities of change could be very effective in decreasing the consumption of unethically made products. However, as discussed earlier, this will require a larger change across all aspects of modern society. 

A growing hope for improving labor quality is largely rooted in the potential that robotics and artificial intelligence have for making such jobs unnecessary. However, the treatment of those who work in sweatshops creates a very sad foreshadowing of how these workers will be treated whenever their jobs are replaced by machines. Whenever these workers are fired, there is an essentially nonexistent likelihood that any form of support will be provided for them by their employers or government, since both neglect workers’ wellbeings. These people will face starvation and homelessness quickly, so there will be no time to begin building a support system if their governments wait until there is no choice.

Is an ethical replacement for sweatshop labor realistic? It is both realistic and necessary. Already, the jobs of millions of sweatshop workers are planned to be taken by machines very soon. As stated by Tim Worstall, “The jobs of nearly 90% of garment and footwear workers in Cambodia and Vietnam are at risk from automated assembly lines – or “sewbots” (...) [and] Foxconn, a firm headquartered in Taiwan (China) that manufactures iPhones and employs more than a million workers in China, announced its plan to have robots complete 70 percent of its assembly-line work by 2018." While sweatshops are already being automated, the improper execution of this automation completely disregards the lives of these workers and will leave millions of people homeless and starving. 

This is the problem with the current execution of automating sweatshops; it is purely for profit and does not even begin to consider the implications that this movement will have on the lives of workers. Whenever large companies like Apple, Nike, Adidas, and Shein eventually switch their labor force to machines, millions of the people who work in their production lines will find themselves with no income or support to stay alive. These companies, despite the billions of dollars they are making off of the backs of slaves, will surely never make even the most feeble attempt to provide necessities for these people whenever they are replaced by machines. Unless a change is made, hundreds of millions will starve and it will be rare or impossible to see the average consumer bat an eye. Because the automation of sweatshops is inevitable, spreading awareness of the conditions of sweatshops and the consequences of their automation under current employment systems is essential in order to avoid substantial pain and death. Furthermore, addressing the evil and hypocrisy being spewed from major corporations is unavoidable if there should ever be hope for a better future. 

As stated by Moshe Vardi, “Humanity is about to face perhaps its greatest challenge ever, which is finding meaning in life after the end of ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’ We need to rise to the occasion and meet this challenge before human labor becomes obsolete.” Providing support for those who do not have opportunities for new jobs as automation rises will be essential. Though this system would be extremely complex, each country will have to develop one before it is too late. To start, each country will need to make training programs and colleges more accessible, partner with organizations for reskilling initiatives, and create a sense of social security for the millions who will still be without jobs. Building these systems now will significantly improve the process of employment shifting in the event of a technological singularity. The implementation of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would be extremely beneficial for those displaced by technology in the job market. This UBI would need to be high enough to provide sufficient food and housing for the unemployed, yet low enough to encourage those who want more than necessities to work towards careers in non-automated industries. As stated in a Medium article, “(UBI) entails everyone in the nation receiving about $1000/month from the government to get everyone above the poverty line. Experiments have been conducted in places such as the US, Canada, East Africa, and more. Many of these experiments have shown drops in poverty, crime, and hospitalizations. (...)”

Non-automated industries could include the arts, technology, teaching, and other jobs that require human engagement. Henning Meyer describes this in an article, stating: “Education should be less about memorizing/ retaining information and more focused on turning that information into knowledge as well as teaching transferable creative, analytical, and social skills. Technical skills might become obsolete very quickly, but the ability to be creative, adapt, and engage in continuous learning will always remain valuable.” Shifting the focus of education and training to non-automated jobs would help to slow the rise of unemployment as governments begin to shift into a more automated economy, stabilizing the transition and giving governments time to build more effective systems over time. This would help begin a stable shift as technology continues to replace more jobs as well, lessening fear and providing a sense of security for those who might otherwise influence panic among the working class. 

Furthermore, providing inexpensive and accessible higher education would allow more people to pursue jobs that will not be quickly replaced by machines. Automating necessary labor like farming and construction would allow for much cheaper production of basic needs and leave more citizens with enough money to pay taxes to fund education opportunities. This would also make the cost to fund education less as machines would be able to replace many university jobs like administrative management, construction, and maintenance. The low cost of pursuing education would also increase average salaries and create a population that is able to partially or fully fund higher education for the unemployed. Of course, such a plan is not as simple as it may sound. The cooperation required between and within governments, corporations, and people is a major undertaking. The challenge that comes with creating such a future, however, should not reduce the effort that is put into its creation. Not only are millions of lives at stake, but billions of lives could be drastically improved. Building a better future for humanity is a challenge, but that does not make it less necessary. 

The abundance that is made possible by machines should be admitted and embraced. Machines allow for bountiful production and, if implemented correctly, have the ability to redefine work. As machines continue to replace job positions, the need for unemployment support will become increasingly crucial. This system will be needed, especially for sweatshop workers that will likely have no security in the event of job loss. Automating the jobs of sweatshops can and will free millions of workers from their slavery, but building systems to support and provide for the displaced workers is vital in saving millions of lives.

"First they came for the Communists,

and I did not speak out—

because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Socialists,

and I did not speak out—

because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I did not speak out—

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I did not speak out—

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me,

and there was no one left

to speak out for me"

Martin Niemöller