Responsibility and Global Labor Justice

Mar 23, 2004

The Issue

The anti-sweatshop movement that emerged in the 1990s inspired widespread activism on university campuses across North America. But who should take responsibility for the global labor injustices that are manifested in the existence of sweatshops in the apparel industry? And, what is the best means for determining the nature and scope of such responsibility? According to a traditional "liability" model, responsibility lies only with those who are directly responsible for the injustice. Iris Young argued that a "social connection" model would be more effective. Unlike the liability model, in the social connection model of responsibility:

  • Responsibility is essentially shared, and thus assigning responsibility does not imply the isolation of perpetrators;

  • Upholding responsibility is more forward looking than backward looking, thus placing emphasis on future prevention of injustices rather than on retribution for past abuses;

  • Meeting one’s responsibilities involves collective action.

A summary of her main points follows.


Young provided an overview of the production and distribution chain that links the makers of the garments in the apparel industry—who are primarily located in the developing world—to the consumers of the products—most of whom are in the developed world.

She began by defining a sweatshop as a small factory (around 100 employees) where items are actually produced. The factory is usually connected to a major distribution corporation (which owns the logo) through a chain of contractors. Often the factory is located in an "export-processing zone," in which labor standards are relaxed in order to bring down costs of production and increase exports that bring the foreign currency that poor countries need to service their debt and meet "structural adjustment" requirements.

Sweatshops have the following characteristics with regard to labor standards:

  • The workers tend to be female and very young, usually below sixteen;

  • The working week is at least six days and the working day is at least twelve hours;

  • The wage is much below the legal minimum wage of the country; overtime is requested without sufficient pay; there are no, or very few, work breaks;

  • Workers' efforts to organize into collective bargaining units are punished through firing, beating, or, in a few cases, killing the organizers.

Accounts of the injustices that occur in this chain have been provided by several groups, among them the Workers’ Rights Consortium and the Fair Labor Association. And while the focus has been on sweatshops in developing countries, the public has also begun to question whether similar entities exist "in our own backyards"—and to realize that they can also be found in North American cities.

The ArgumentsAssigning responsibility for the unfair conditions under which products, particularly apparel, are manufactured is highly complex. The difficulty arises because these agents—members of the general public who consume products created in sweatshops—are distant from, and lack direct involvement in, the production process; even those involved in some aspect of the production process point out that they have not created the sweatshops. Thus many consumers of sweatshop products are under the impression that responsibility for alleviating sweatshop conditions lies closer to the site of the sweatshop, with the contractors and/or the local government is not sufficiently vigilant in regulating human rights and labor conditions.

But, according to Young, despite the merits of such claims, consumers are at least partly responsible for the labor conditions under which the products they buy are produced. One of the reasons for the failure of consumers to accept responsibility is the widespread, narrow view of justice and obligation that specifies that "the scope of those about whom I should be concerned on justice issues extends only to those who are within the same political community or the same nation."

The claims being made by the anti-sweatshop movement raise questions about the nature and scope of our obligations: to whom are we responsible, and what is the extent of our responsibility? Hence, Young asked, "How does one argue that people in North America have obligations regarding people in the Philippines or Indonesia or Mexico?" Drawing on the work of Thomas Pogge and Onora O’Neill, she said that the source of obligations of justice is in what she terms "social connections." A model of responsibility based on social connections differs from the dominant model of responsibility based on notions of liability.

The Liability Model
Young explained that the traditional liability model is characterized by these three features:

1) To attribute responsibility, you must identify an agent who is to blame for the occurrence of a particular harm, either by having committed it or having allowed it to happen. Once it can be established that the agent was neither coerced nor ignorant, he can be held solely responsible. Thus, the perpetrator is isolated and all other persons are absolved.

2) The action for which we are seeking to attribute responsibility is regarded as an aberration, "an unacceptable deviation from an otherwise acceptable background condition"—and, importantly, this assumes that "there are background conditions we take as acceptable."

3) The harm for which responsibility is being sought is complete: "it's isolatable in time."

These features imply that the liability model is primarily backward looking, Thus, when applying it to the anti-sweatshop movement, we are likely to arrive at the conclusion that only the individuals who set up the sweatshops and those directly above them in the network of production can be deemed responsible.

The Social Connection Model: An Alternative
In contrast to the liability model, the "social connection" model provides for a global notion of responsibility, which helps to make sense of claims made by the anti-sweatshop movement and others seeking to achieve global labor justice. Young explained that by participating in ongoing structural and social processes, we are helping, by our very actions, to produce and reproduce injustices. This means that we have obligations of justice to any and all who are part of the same structural and social processes. In a social connection model, there is no collective absolution to be had, and even those who are indirectly involved in the harm can be identified. In addition, harm is conceptualized as a function of structural problems rather than as an aberration. And, while in the liability model the harm being addressed has already occurred, the social connection model is concerned with ongoing injustices. As Young explained, "we are seeking responsibility for the set of background conditions that are producing and reproducing over time what we are regarding as an injustice." The objective of the social model of responsibility is not merely to look back and assign blame. Rather, it is to look forward and explore how the structure and the processes it entails can be altered with a view to preventing the injustice from recurring.

Given that the social connection model stresses shared responsibility, the only effective response is to take responsibility collectively. "One’s own responsibility can only be discharged by joining with others in some form of collective action designed to change the process." This is what constitutes political responsibility, she noted.

Shared responsibility, however, does not mean that everyone bears the same share of responsibility—otherwise, it would be an unworkable notion. Rather, responsibility is allocated in terms of one’s position in the social structure. Young identified four parameters that can help one to "reason about where to put one’s energies given that one cannot do everything about all things":

1) Power: While not all of those with power will be inclined to act, they nevertheless have the capacity to make a difference.

2) Privilege: While not all with privilege are powerful, privilege often carries the capacity to make a difference, and is a function of a particular social structure.

3) Interest: Similarly, not all who have an objective interest in affecting change are substantively capable of doing so; nevertheless, "those who might be thought to be victims of injustice share responsibility with others for entering collective action to change it."

4) Collective ability: This refers to the capacity of individuals who may not be powerful or privileged, but who are able to contribute to the mobilization of others due to their involvement in, or association with, groups that have the resources to facilitate collective organization.

DiscussionWhy use the term "social connection" as opposed to "social relation"?

One participant noted that "talk about genuine social relations [that] has something to do with the exploitation the modern worker faces, has something to do with capital-labor relations—and responsibility goes to the particular agent who takes a position in that relation." In that sense, he argued, it is "much simpler to use or expand the legal responsibility to a structural responsibility embedded in social relations"—and not connections.

Young said she had chosen the term "social connection" because "connection" is more abstract than "relation." Therefore it corresponds with her intention to create an inclusive framework for understanding social relations. She also views the term "connection" as objective: "I am trying to invoke the objective connectedness that the structures produce, even though I might not want a relationship with some of the people in it."

Don’t distance and "otherness" create undesirable outcomes from activism against labor injustice?

Another participant pointed out that Young had previously argued in relation to military intervention that there is a certain "exoticization" of the other, which creates the paradigmatic victim. Similarly, those who would object to universalized labor standards may say that advocating for standards actually benefits the well-paid unions in North America insofar as it creates protectionism that shuts out poor workers in Indonesia or the Philippines.

Young responded that "what exoticization, or a kind of aid-oriented paternalism, does is position some people as inherently, or only as, victims." By contrast, her model accords the victims of injustice with the same agency as other actors. This is partly why, in her model, those who are victims of injustice also share responsibility for seeking to remedy the situation. She has also proposed that any assistance provided through activism or in any other way be conceptualized in terms of solidarity with the victims.

Where in the structure of various corporate entities are questions pertaining to global justice and responsibility addressed?

A participant who works for IBM was concerned that she knew of no place in the structure of the company that is mandated with the responsibility to address injustices that may occur during the production process. She suggested that such issues are probably dealt with by employees in charge of brand image.

Young noted that there are several corporations that have ethics offices, or offices of social responsibility, whose function is similar to offices that deal with brand image. For the most part, however, the pressure to address such issues comes from outside the corporation, and in response to this, some corporations have—ironically—appointed individuals to keep track of such outside pressure as well as to monitor their contractors.

-- Prepared by Farrah Brown and Lydia Tomitova

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