Does buying a product made in a sweatshop help or hurt the workers who made it? Although buying their merchandise helps keep the workers employed, they often receive low wages and spend long hours working in dangerous conditions.
This is just one of many ethical questions that Monique Deveaux, philosophy professor and Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Global Social Change, examines in her research on global justice and inequality between rich and poor states.
Our growing demand for inexpensive products drives local manufacturers abroad, where labour costs are much lower, but sweatshop workers often pay a high price for those jobs. “Companies that can operate so much more cheaply overseas are often doing so in conditions that might temporarily raise the standard of living of local people, but in the long-term may perpetuate conditions of entrenched poverty,” she says.
The decisions we make as consumers and as affluent countries in the North often have a negative impact on developing countries in the South. Deveaux says there’s a direct correlation between rich and poor countries. One country’s wealth may come at the expense of another country, as in the case of unfair trade policies.
Industrialized countries often impose tariffs on cheaper products and raw materials from developing countries to protect their own industries, but these “short-term economic solutions are not always the most morally sound,” says Deveaux.
Although such trade policies help protect jobs in the North, they also perpetuate the cycle of poverty in the South because poor countries can’t repay their debts if they can’t sell their exports at a fair price.
“You can look at ongoing structural disadvantages that benefit the global North, like unfair terms of trade that make it difficult if not impossible for many developing countries to get their exports onto the world market, or imposed terms of debt that are crippling developing economies and making it impossible for them to step out of their circumstances of underdevelopment,” says Deveaux.
What can we do as individuals to help our global neighbours? Being a conscious consumer is one place to start. Pressuring politicians to adopt more equitable terms of trade, forgive debts incurred by the least-developed countries and increase foreign aid can also make a difference.
“The biggest impact comes from large, structural programs,” says Deveaux, referring to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which include ending poverty and hunger, improving child and maternal health, and making education universally accessible. Coordinated efforts by governments and international organizations are more effective than individual donations to charity, she adds.
But some of those programs, such as structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, apply harsh restrictions on developing countries to repay their debts. “Privatization of key industries and the stripping of social services are very damaging and punitive,” says Deveaux.
Globalization is making the world a smaller, more interconnected place, which means that one country’s actions can have a ripple effect on other countries. What were once local problems are becoming global problems. Disease outbreaks, for example, can spread from one side of the planet to the other as soon as an infected person boards an airplane.
Climate change, another global phenomenon, is largely caused by industrialized countries that consume more than their fair share of resources, but developing countries, especially those located near the equator, suffer the most from rising temperatures and drought-induced crop failures.
“The world is increasingly globalized along social, economic and political dimensions,” says Deveaux. “We have responsibilities not just to our own citizens, but to people around the world.”