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A high-tech replacement for sweatshop labour! Um ... yay?

Should critics of sweatshops celebrate or mourn when sweatshop workers are put out of a job?

Demonstrators protesting sweatshop conditions at Sara Lee’s Mexican factories march outside the company’s HQ, July 29, 2004 in Chicago (Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty)

When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

Fast Company‘s “Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet” is a thought-provoking story in this regard:

As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90—constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT … basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.

Now the details of this new production method are sketchy. But I’m led to wonder if the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that that’s the case. If so, then critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?

I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?

As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.

But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.

Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshops that remain?