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Are Sweatshops Drivers for Gender Equality?

Labour Market Injustice

Labour markets are rife with questions of justice. This series of blog posts; explore cases of injustice, highlight theoretical puzzles and point towards possible solutions. They emerged from debates at the ‘Labour Market Injustice’ Workshop co-hosted by Newcastle and Durham Universities and generously sponsored by the Society for Applied Philosophy.  In this third post Mirjam Mueller explores the putative connection between sweatshop labour and female emancipation.

In 1884 Friedrich Engels argued in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that women’s participation in the workforce was key to their emancipation. By entering the workforce on equal footing with men, women would become economically independent and traditional gender relations would be destroyed by capitals indiscriminate demand for labour. Does this mean we should put our hopes on capitalism promoting gender equality?

It seems that in recent debates around sweatshop labour this is precisely what proponents of sweatshops suggest. Sweatshop labour refers to labour intense production work, usually in countries in the Global South, which is characterised by minimal wages, long hours, health and safety hazards and the systematic suppression of collective bargaining. Proponents of sweatshop labour agree it is not a great option. Yet they argue, as exemplified in Nicholas Kristof’s often quoted defence of sweatshops in the New York Times, ‘the problem is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough’. Not only will sweatshops lift people out of poverty, but importantly they also provide emancipatory potential for their overwhelmingly female workforce (about 80% of the workers are women), so the argument.

How can we understand the relation between sweatshop labour and female emancipation? First, one can point out that in entering the workforce women earn their own money and thereby become economically independent. Second, a change in the traditional division of labour with women working outside the home, will lead to a more equal division of household chores. This in turn will challenge gender roles more generally. So, is this good news for female sweatshop workers and for consumers, who are now in a position to shop guilt-free at Primark, H&M and Zara in the name of feminism? There are reasons to be sceptical.

First, it is not clear that the participation in the workforce and the earning of wages necessarily translates into economic independence for women. Sweatshop wages, while often higher than wages of local suppliers, generally fall short of a living wage. Women, who tend to be the primary responsible for dependant relatives, do not enjoy real economic independence if their main concern is how to feed themselves and their families. There is also no clear empirical evidence that women who earn more than their male partners therefore control the finances of the family. In addition, economic pressure means that in particular women with children become heavily dependent on their (generally) male supervisors to keep their jobs. It seems that in this case this constitute a mere shift from being dependent on male family members to being dependent on male employers. Therefore, the degree to which sweatshop labour actually offers real economic independence for women should not be overestimated.

Second, the claim that women’s participation in sweatshops will lead to a more equal division of household tasks is empirically questionable. While there are differences across countries, a study conducted in the garment sweatshops in Mexico found that women still bear the lion’s share of the household tasks even if they are the sole earners. Similarly, in Bangladesh, interviews with female sweatshop workers reveal that they are generally working double-shifts. This suggests that patriarchal norms are relatively resistant to changes in the material basis.

Finally, while the changing division of labour challenges traditional gender roles, the power of patriarchal norms should not be underestimated. Rather than destroying traditional gender relations, capitalism and patriarchy in fact form a symbiotic relationship inside the sweatshop. The dictates of cheap labour, according to which sweatshops operate, has led to a reconstruction of gender roles on the factory floors. Stereotypes that depict women as mothers and housewives are employed to justify paying women low wages. Defining women’s primary identity in this way has the twofold effect that their labour is on the one hand seen as supplementary to that of the male breadwinner and can hence be paid accordingly. On the other hand, their labour is seen as temporary, which allows for flexible and insecure contracts. In addition, women experience specific types of sexism in the factories, including sexual harassment by their supervisors and mandatory pregnancy tests. The assumption that economic exploitation is a stepping-stone to a more gender equal society overlooks how capitalism itself produces and reproduces gender oppression to its own benefit.

I therefore think we should be very careful not to mistake sweatshop exploitation for female emancipation. Instead we should turn to the emancipatory potential that lies in various forms of resistance to sweatshop labour. Sweatshops provide space for collective action: women meet at the factory floors and exchange their experiences, they show solidarity with co-workers and they enter unions. These sites become important spaces for women’s struggle and women often take leading roles in fighting for workers’ rights. A good example is the garment workers’ strike for a higher minimum wage in Cambodia in 2014. If there is any emancipatory potential in sweatshop labour, it does not lie in its economic exploitation, but in its space for collective action and female solidarity.



Mirjam Mueller

Mirjam is a postdoctoral fellow at Justitia Amplificata at the Free University Berlin. Her research focuses on questions concerning the normative issues related to global relations of production, structural injustice and feminist theory.


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  1. Hi Mirjam, not so much a question as a thought on what you say here. It seems that some of the concerns you highlight suggest that sweatshops are not a panacea for gender inequality, but remain beneficial to some extent (e.g., women are a bit more independent, but not a huge amount), whereas others suggest that sweatshops might be regressive (e.g., in their contribution to the double shift). Is that interpretation correct? If so, I wonder how you think we ought to think about this balance of positives and negatives, thinking about the overall cause of gender equality? Are some more important than others, how should we weight them, how consequentialist should we be about the trade-off…?

  2. I visit the writer has floor knowledge it the topic in addition to some practical expertise.
    This type of information is always more valuable than copypasted blog posts thoughts.

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