How Beyonce’s Sweatshop Labor Is “Inspiring and Supporting Women”

“Any critique of Beyoncé must be accompanied by a critique of the capitalist system of exploitation and wage slavery,” @communickthey tweeted Tuesday. If so, must the opposite be true? Must any defense of Beyoncé be accompanied by a defense of the capitalist system of exploitation and wage slavery?

Either way, this defense of Beyoncé will be accompanied by a defense of the capitalist system of exploitation and wage slavery.

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It’s also a critique of a very common paternalistic, neocolonial line of thinking. When white feminism criticizes Beyonce, I’m here to clap back.

The charge

“Companies like Topshop have a duty to find out if these things are happening,” said Jakub Sobik of Anti-Slavery International. What things? Sobik alleges Beyonce’s Topshop sportswear collection is assembled by Sri Lankan women for £4.30 a day.

Is a wage of £4.30 per day “inspiring and supporting women,” the collection’s stated goal?

It all depends on your definition of support.

What is support?

Everywhere we’re asked what’s empowering to women. Are naked selfies empowering? How about SlutWalks? Is Leaning In empowering, or is does it help women more to Lean Out?

Teasing out the feminist implications of individual women’s choices isn’t a bad intellectual endeavor, especially for the women with the luxury of surplus time and resources to ponder whether it’s good feminism to reclaim the word “slut.”

But it’s the epitome of “white feminism” to hand wave the harder, more pressing questions about empowerment, like whether factory wage labor is more feminist than early marriage.

Having these discussions requires acknowledging that the choice between sex work, domestic labor, factory work, and marriage are indeed choices. And that even poor women are capable of maximizing their own self-interest.

The first step to making a problem worse is acting before you understand the problem.

Slavery is horrific. However, it’s unclear why Anti-Slavery International is weighing in on the fact that these workers make double Sri Lanka’s minimum wage. While a salary of £4.30 per day is not great, even in a developing country, it’s also not slavery.

According to Avens O’Brien, whose math I trust, the *average* Sri Lankan has a gross nominal monthly income of about 9,000 rupees (about $61). The basic wage for a sweatshop worker for Beyonce’s company is about 18,500 rupees (or about $126).

But even if these workers made 60,000 Sri Lankan Rupees per year, or 40,000, it’s still a choice. And it’s likely the best available option.

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski writes in Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation for Business Ethics Quarterly, “To the extent that sweatshops do evil to their workers, they do so in the context of providing their workers with a financial benefit, and workers’ eager readiness to consent to the conditions of sweatshop labor shows that they view this benefit as considerable.”

Outlawing, boycotting, or regulating sex work or sweatshop labor has two potential outcomes, which are not mutually exclusive:

1. Employers might retain the same number of workers and also pay them more and treat them better.

This is the least likely outcome. They might retain workers or improve conditions, but not both. Certainly not long-term unless they also suddenly somehow become more profitable.

2. Employers might choose to break the law.

In general, outlawing, boycotting, or regulating sex work or sweatshop labor results in depriving people of their first choice in employment and driving work underground where it’s even more dangerous.

Effective boycotts and regulations and bans lead to women losing their factory jobs. As Paul Krugman pointed out, “Global poverty is not something recently invented for the benefit of multinational corporations.” There’s no need to imagine what will happen to workers if these campaigns are successful. Just look at what the people were doing before the factory opened. Options include homesteading mountains of garbage and subsistence farming.

Some of them go into sex work. Others become domestic workers. Some marry to alleviate their poverty.

Some people must choose between starvation and an array of dangerous and humiliating employment choices. This is an economic fact, resulting from kleptocratic governments, corporatism, and insufficient political will to build a functioning social safety net.

This sucks. No one should like this reality.

The question is what should we do about it?

I’ll say it again for the people in the back: If a woman chose a factory job you’re not making her life better by taking that job away…regardless of whether that job is domestic, service, manufacturing or sex work.

Okay but what is support?

Which brings us back to the first question. Support is supporting women’s choices.

It’s having the humility to ask yourself, “Who am I to try to decide from from a place of comfort which work poorer woman should be allowed to do?”

“There is a large gulf between concluding that the activities of sweatshops are morally evil and concluding that sweatshop labor ought to be legally prohibited, boycotted, regulated, or prohibited by moral norms,” Zwolinski writes.

Flora Laven-Morris writes, “Sweatshop work does actually help improve women’s lives in other arenas; delaying marriage, delaying young childbirth and extending schooling, particularly amongst teenage girls.”

That large gulf is called “reality.” It’s the fact that I can’t outlaw, boycott, or regulate away every dangerous and humiliating employment choice. I can’t outlaw, boycott, or regulate my way to a functional social safety net.

The only thing I can do with those tools is deprive women of the little agency they have to make the best choice for them in the circumstances they’re in.

There is no magic bullet. There’s no social media campaign against Beyonce that will create more and more pleasant employment choices for Sri Lankan women. But there is a way to inspire and support these women. And the first step is to not stomp on their ability to make choices based on their preferences, even when those choices don’t seem ideal to us.

“Washing our hands of the situation and just closing the sweatshops would make their workers worse off, potentially much worse off,” Laven-Morris warns. “If we want to help people, we should give them new options, not take away existing ones.”

6 Comments

  1. Myst

    1. YOU are a white women, stop trying to somehow position yourself as a response to white feminism – this article is practically the definition of it, and using cringeworthy attempts at what you obviously think is ‘non-white’ language (*clap back* – sigh) to do so.

    2. You are spurting the classic neo-liberal lines justifying wage slavery and, in fact, neo-colonial exploitation, which have been consistently refuted by decades of heterodox theory. Your conclusions are both ridiculously flawed and dangerous when extended. Regulation (when used correctly) is the ONLY reason that there are any health and safety requirements and restrictions on what these employers can force their employees to do, pay them, etc. To try to turn people against it in such a disingenuous way is, quite frankly, disgusting.

    3. It also smacks of an incredibly neo-colonialist, orientalist view – ‘these poor people were living in the dirt before our lovely corporations came and gave them work and meaning, they should be thankful for all they get’. Ignoring, of course, the fact that the global economic structure (dominated by Western countries and those same corporations) are the exact reason that many of these societies and their people are actually in such dire straights in the first place – a situation that is extremely convenient for these employers, and they are well documented to actively work to avoid changing. You have absolutely no understanding of power, predation and influence.

    4. The easy, tired lie that there is no way to increase wages or improve conditions without necessary unemployment is flawed almost on the face of it. Proper, well-crafted regulation (especially when enforced multilaterally – that is, simultaneously by regions or even the world through international accords and organisations) can and does lead to improved conditions and pay, which is in fact the entire point of everything from union campaigning to work related law and regulation, which has been won through literally centuries of struggle. Such regulation simply shifts the burden of economic ‘squeezing’ from the workers at the bottom of the organisational hierarchy to the obscene profits and pay of those at the top. E.g. Mr. CEO at the top gets a $100,000 dollar bonus instead of a $5 million one, and that allows for a wage rise of some decent amount for tens of thousands of workers. You are simply spouting apologism for pure greed and needless exploitation.

    5. I want to re-iterate this point – your argument taken to its logical conclusion would be for the complete dismantlement of all protections for workers of any sort worldwide. This is because this would, of course, reduce the number of unemployed (which is significant in pretty much any country you look at), which is your number 1 priority. But you know what this would look like? You would have corporations with people working 18-hour days, 7 days a week in environments with extremely high rates of accidental death (and no real incentive to change this), feeding them just enough to stay alive and controlling their every move. You would have people whose ‘job’ it is to endure racial and physical abuse from the rich in roles as indentured servants. You may even have people who sign contracts to be tortured to death for the pleasure of others, just so their families might have a better future – there would be no way without regulation to properly prevent this and your argument covers it, either way. And the corporations reaping the profits of this, which often rival countries in wealth and power, would have a huge vested interest in maintaining this situation not for ‘economic efficiency and the good (through employment) to all’, but for their own profits.

    6. You and those like you are trying to undo all the good that has been done and take us back to the dark ages, using people of colour over whom you are vastly structural privileged on every possible axis as the guineau pigs in your foul experiment. Don’t ever try to make you are an ally. You are the furthest possible thing from it.

    • Myst

      Having looked at your wider work and beliefs, I realise that you are not a stupid, ignorant new-wave SJW after all. You are even more nauseatingly actively using their symbols and rhetoric to forward your agenda as a Randian Objectivist… I didn’t even know it was possible for human beings to stoop this low.

    • Myst

      I know all about Mises and his shitty institute, and have done since I was about 12, at which age I was still ready and able to call bullshit on all of the complete, well, bullshit that they espouse. Also, you have no idea who I am, or even whether or not I’m a ‘lady’, so don’t try it.

  2. dino

    This sweatshop issue is a classic problem for libertarians, who, because they’re so stoned on their own self-importance and righteousness look like such imperialist neoliberal scum cause they can’t grasp the fact that the mere fact that being a sweatshop worker in the third world is often better than most other forms of employment still doesn’t make being a sweatshop worker a great option or real great thing! Rather than trying to destroy the system that allows people to be oppressed and exploited by capital by working in sweatshops, libertarians, instead of prudentially explaining how sweatshops are the least bad option these people have and though they are still not a good option we shouldn’t encourage eliminating sweatshops while we deal with the bigger problem of a system that allows them to exist in the first place, since it is better than working outdoors in fields, scream loud as fuck at how great they are and the people who work there just fucking love it, and spit vituperation’s at anyone who might disagree! Tone matters. Sweatshops suck, and oppress and exploit, don’t get it twisted just because it isn’t the worst possible option. Just ask the few hundred Bangladeshi’s who died in a factory collapse. Oh and defending capitalism is indefensible.

  3. One can argue for a free market and freedom of choice and still opine that some personal and cultural choices are far superior to others. And one can recognize that free markets can be consistent with dog eat dog economics for only a certain period of time before rank force and fraud become widespread and people start glamoring for a state that protects them. So it is best to argue both for a free market and for high ethical standards of treatment of employees and consumers, as well as promotion of educating people into learning both entrepreneurship and how to form cooperative employee-owned businesses and larger communities. Not everyone will want to join or feel comfortable staying in such businesses or communities, but it should be recognized that in a free society a certain percentage of people will choose them. Today’s laws, from zoning laws to employment laws to financial laws to monopolistic regulations and taxation regimes that help big corporations and hurt small enterprises conspire against all these choices.

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