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The Jewish Ethicist: Sweatshops

The Jewish Ethicist: Sweatshops

Is it ethical to buy from low-wage suppliers?


Q. Many consumer products are made in third world countries in sweatshop conditions. Is buying these products exploiting the workers? Or perhaps it is actually helping them, because it provides them with work and gives them a chance to improve living conditions? What about the effect on local workers?

A. The foreign sweatshop debate has raged for generations. Organized labor has traditionally demanded better working conditions not only in the home country, but also abroad; cynics have complained that this demand is really a way of fending off low-cost foreign competition which benefits consumers.

A verse from Leviticus (25:14) can help focus the debate: "And when you sell something to your fellow, or buy from the hand of your fellow, don't exploit each one his brother."

The simple meaning of the verse is that we shouldn't exploit each other in commerce by charging an unfair price. But Rashi's commentary points out that the verse contains an implicit mandate: when we sell, we should preferably sell to our fellow; when we buy, we should buy from our fellow. In a previous column, we explained that this preference both provides a livelihood for community members and also builds a feeling of connection and solidarity among members of a particular community. [See: Malicious Merchant] Many authorities have stated that we should even pay a premium in order to do business with fellow community members, thus making economic relations complement social ones. (1)

The critical question then becomes: who is my "fellow"? My neighbor? My fellow citizen? Any fellow human being? In past generations this question was easier to answer, because both practically and emotionally mutual awareness and concern could exist only among those who were close by. In the age of globalization, many people believe that it is both practical and obligatory to view all humans as our "fellows"; others worry that this approach carries the danger that existing, functional community relationships will be weakened in favor of a still-hypothetical "community of man," resulting in the loss of all communal concern.

Presumably what we need is a concentric set of communal relationships, each one on a suitable scale. It is practical for everyone to be concerned with world ecology and global warming, which are truly global problems; conversely, a free loan society for needy individuals in a small neighborhood is practical, but it would be hard to administer one which serves an entire region.

If you believe that consumers in advanced countries can create genuine empathy and solidarity with sweatshop workers in East Asia, considering these distant individuals our "fellows," then it is definitely appropriate for you to take steps, including consumer activism, to promote better working conditions for these workers. Of course we should take care that our steps don't actually work to their detriment, by destroying their livelihood during a prolonged boycott or pricing their goods out of the market. If you feel that your first concern should be for workers in your own region or country, then you should try when practical to give preference to local manufacturers even if there is a moderate price difference.

In a way, both the stated or cynical understanding of labor groups have relevance. If we do share a sense of community, or worker solidarity, with sweatshop workers in distant countries, then we should be concerned with their working conditions, and not exploit them (as the verse states). If we don't share a sense of community with them, we should try to give precedence to local workers who are our "fellows".

Our aspiration should be for economic relations that harmonize with communal ones; we should engage in buying and selling with our fellows, and avoid exploiting them. When practical, we should either display concern for the workers who make our goods, or buy goods from those workers for whom we can effectively display concern.

(1) Responsa Rema 10.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

April 17, 2004

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Anonymous, December 13, 2010 9:13 AM


I work in a jewish owned sweatshop in Franklin Tn. We got raided by ICE a little while ago. Our wages are low. We make 10.75 per hour average. The average home where we work cost 250000. Our insurance is 100k per lifetime max then your cut off. Why does the Jewish community punish us like this? Ask Oscar Lasko. BTW Our management is very abusive. And not to mention not that smart as far as choice making goes. My Rabbi cant get them to do the right thing. What am i to do????

(3) Sue, July 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Let us do one, and not leave the other undone.

We ought to support businesses that hire Americans, but American businessmen who use third world laborers should see to it that their workers have adequate salaries to provide basic needs. In this way, all are served and helped. The Haitian dilemna mentioned by Mr. Beecham is also true in India. I personally know a man there whose entire life is dedicated to buying back pre-teen and teenaged girls from houses of prostitution to which their desperate parents sold them. Some are as young as seven years old. 100% of these children have AIDS or HIV. They are all fed, cared for, educated, and housed in facilities built through the support of individual and corporate donors.

(2) Zoe, April 20, 2004 12:00 AM


Look at it like this, the reasons that people work for pennies for 16 hour days is that they have no choice. You agree with that, obviously.

Why is this? we are willing to contribute money to these companies. Yes, everything we do must be thought out extremely throroughly, but just a few "I will only buy from you when you look after your workers" will go a long way.

It's like the smuggling and poaching trades- they wouldnt exist if we werent to buy their products. If we are to really care for our fellow man, we should not in any way condone these atrocious conditions.

You only need a few distribution/manufacturing companies based in these places that will pay workers a decent wage, adequate for their living needs. This wage will still be far less than in most developed countries. Why don't these companies exist yet? We're still happy with the blatant exploitation of our brothers and sisters. My heart goes out to these people, and I plead with those in more power than me to consider what is really helping these people, and what is really helping their opressors.

(1) Jim Beecham, April 19, 2004 12:00 AM

One person's "sweatshop" is another's daily meal

As a US citizen who lives in Indonesia and has lived in other developing countries, as you seem to allude to in your response, one must be very careful about activism here. In some instances of abject poverty eg if children cannot work the sweatshops, they will then be forced into prostitution by the desparately poor parent(s). I witnessed activists from USA pressuring the govt in Dom Republic re:poor conditions of children living with their Haitian immigrant parents working the sugar cane fields in the Dom Rep. The govt responded by ordering the women and children out....the result....incidence of prostitution and HIV/AIDs increased among the Haitian men now separated from their wives and families. Of course the activists meant well but....these things must be thought out very thoroughly.

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