A case study in unintended consequences

Thoughts on the benefits of outsiders being concerned about sweatshop labor conditions

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright May 2012

Upton Sinclair made it famous in the meatpacking industry by publishing The Jungle in 1906, but he was far from the first to dramatize and critisize harsh working conditions, and far from the last. And the public's outrage in his era at discovering people routinely worked in these conditions wasn't new either. Fast forward to the 2010's and this pattern continues. The latest incarnation of this discovery/outrage is over working conditions of those making iPads and iPhones at Foxconn factories in China. (this article being one of many on the topic)

The response to the outrage, enacting new labor laws to protect workers from such conditions, is a chronic Blunder made in post-agricultural age communities. It is a blunder because it disenfranchises the employer-worker relation. That relation now becomes employer-worker... plus government regulator, union overseer, media person, labor activist and more. It becomes a classic version of The Curse of Being Important.

The problem with this protective point of view is that the workers who are engaging in these terrible-sounding jobs are making a choice: They have the choice of not taking the job. They don't have to do these jobs. These jobs are not slave labor, not prison labor. These workers are voluntarily trading their time, risk, and discomfort for monetary rewards and other perks, such as better housing and living conditions over what they were experiencing previously, such as when living on the farm they often came from. (This previous environment is the working environment that doesn't attract all the "horrible conditions" attention that the factory environment does, but in fact is a lot more difficult, dangerous and dirty.)

This good intentioned patronizing adds expense without benefit in a couple ways:

o The smallest is the expense of additional auditing and inspecting

o Bigger is the patronizing of the worker -- the worker is less responsible for his or her own condition, therefore he or she can't fix their own condition when they see a problem they personally care a lot about.

o Even bigger is the growing the feeling of disenfranchisement on both the worker and the management sides of the relation: both sides get more feeling of, "Meh... this isn't my problem, I'm not going to try and fix it. I'll wait for someone else, some outside do-gooder, to come and fix it." or worse, "OK. I see an opportunity to take a cheap shot, so I will. I'll take the cheap shot until someone from the outside discovers what I'm doing and makes me stop."

o And finally, the loss of flexibility. Work environments are not static, and The Curse adds huge time and cost to adapting to working condition changes and to experimenting with potential innovations that would improve working conditions.

None of the above costs are helping at bringing about the result that all the good intentions of outsiders were striving for: A better workplace with happier employees.

The moral: We as a community should recognize that the employer-worker relation can handle itself quite nicely. It's an on-going relation that can be built on mutual trust because there is an important direct exchange going on: money for work done. This relation doesn't need a lot of patronizing help from good-intentioned outsiders. If employers and workers are held responsible for their own choices working conditions will adapt quickly to what both sides can agree on, and both sides, and outsiders, will be happier with the choices.

Pissing and moaning about one's lot in work life seems to be a natural condition of humanity. But, like the weather, it should be something that everyone talks about, and no one interferes with... except the people directly involved: the worker and the employer.

If we recognize this, life will get a lot simpler and more satisfying for everyone... except for the now out-of-work, good-intentioned crusaders.


--The End--