I've been looking for reliable evidence of a claim I've heard a few times. The claim is that the closing of sweatshops (by anti-globalization activists) has resulted in many of the child workers becoming prostitutes. The idea is frequently proffered as an example of do-gooder foolishness ignoring basic economics and screwing people over.

However, despite searching for a while, I can't find anything to indicate that this actually happened.

Some guy at the Library of Economics and Liberty mentions it here:

In one famous 1993 case U.S. senator Tom Harkin proposed banning imports from countries that employed children in sweatshops. In response a factory in Bangladesh laid off 50,000 children. What was their next best alternative? According to the British charity Oxfam a large number of them became prostitutes.

But in the article, Paul Krugman mentions the Oxfam study without citation:

In 1993, child workers in Bangladesh were found to be producing clothing for Wal-Mart, and Senator Tom Harkin proposed legislation banning imports from countries employing underage workers. The direct result was that Bangladeshi textile factories stopped employing children. But did the children go back to school? Did they return to happy homes? Not according to Oxfam, which found that the displaced child workers ended up in even worse jobs, or on the streets -- and that a significant number were forced into prostitution.

I looked at some Oxfam stuff, but couldn't find the study.

A similar claim is made in The Race to the Top: The Real Story of Globalization by Tomas Larsson (go here and use the search tool for the word 'prostitution'), but doesn't mention the Oxfam study:

Keith E. Maskus, an economist at the University of Colorado, has studied the issue... He concludes that... "The celebrated French ban of soccer balls sewn in Pakistan for the World Cup in 1998 resulted in significant dislocation of children from employment. Those who tracked them found that a large proportion ended up begging and/or in prostitution,"

I looked for a paper or something by Maskus but came up empty.

I was taught this fact at a Poli Sci class in college, but I'm starting to think it's more likely to be an information cascade. Can anyone do a better job than me?

Thanks in advance.


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I will quote at length here.

3. The Argument

  1. Most sweatshop workers choose to accept the conditions of their employ ment, even if their choice is made from among a severely constrained set of options.18
  2. The fact that they choose the conditions of their employment from within a constrained set of options is strong evidence that they view it as their most-preferred option (within that set).
  3. The fact that they view it as their most-preferred option is strong evidence that we will harm them by taking that option away.
  4. It is also plausible that sweatshop workers' choice to accept the condi tions of their employment is sufficiently autonomous that taking the option of sweatshop labor away from them would be a violation of their autonomy.
  5. All else being equal, it is wrong to harm people or to violate their autonomy.
  6. Therefore, all else being equal, it is wrong to take away the option of sweat shop labor from workers who would otherwise choose to engage in it.

5. Challenges to The Argument
I will discuss three potential vulnerabilities in The Argument. One potential vulnerability centers on premises 1, 2, and 4, and stems from possible failures of rationality and/or freedom (which I will group together as failures of voluntariness) in sweatshop workers' consent. The second is located in premise 3, and derives from a possibly unwarranted assumption regarding the independence of a potential worker's antecedent choice-set and the offer of employment by a sweatshop. A final criticism of The Argument is centered on the conclusion (6) and holds that even if everything in premises 1-5 is true, it nevertheless ignores a crucial moral consideration. That consideration is the wrongfulness of exploitation?for one can wrongfully exploit an individual even while one provides them with options better than any of their other available alternatives.
a. Failures of Voluntariness
The first premise states that sweatshop workers choose the conditions of their employment, even if that choice is made from among a severely constrained set of options. And undoubtedly, the set of options available to potential sweatshop workers is severely constrained indeed. Sweatshop workers are usually extremely poor and seeking employment to provide for the necessities of life, so prolonged unemploy ment is not an option. They lack the education necessary to obtain higher-paying jobs, and very often lack the resources to relocate to where better low-skill jobs are available. Given these dire economic circumstances, do sweatshop workers really make a "choice" in the relevant sense at all? Should we not say instead, with John Miller, that whatever "choice" sweatshop workers make is made only under the "coercion of economic necessity" (Miller, 2003: 97)? And would not such coercion undermine the morally transformative power of workers' choices?
I do not think so.38 The mugging case discussed in section two shows that while coercion may undermine some sorts of moral transformation effected by choice, it does not undermine all sorts.39 Specifically, the presence of coercion does not license third parties to disregard the stated preferences of the coerced party by interfering with their activity. After all, one of the main reasons that coercion is bad is because it reduces our options. The mugger in the case above, for instance, takes away our option of continuing our life and keeping our money, and limits our choices to two — give up the money or die. Poverty can be regarded as coercive because it, too, reduces our options. Poverty reduces the options of many sweatshop workers, for instance, to a small list of poor options — prostitution, theft, sweatshop labor, or starvation. This is bad. But removing one option from that short list — indeed, removing the most preferred option — does not make things any better for the worker. The coercion of poverty reduces a worker's options, but so long as he is still free to choose from among the set of options available to him, we will do him no favors by reducing his options still further. Indeed, to do so would be a further form of coercion, not a cure for the coercion of poverty.40

[C]40. See Radcliffe Richards, 1996: 382.
[Radcliffe Richards, Janet (1996). Nepharious goings on: Kidney sales and moral arguments. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 21 (4):375--416.]

[C]74. For instance, in 1992, the United States congress was considering legislation known as the "Child Labor Deterrence Act." The purpose of this act was to prevent child labor by preventing the importation into the United States of any goods made, in whole or in part, by children under the age of 15. The Act never received enough support to pass, but while it was being debated, employers in several countries where child labor was widespread took preemptive action in order to maintain their ability to export to the lucrative U.S. market. One of these employers was the garment industry in Bangladesh. According to UNICEF's 1997 "State of the World's Children" report, approximately 50,000 children were laid off in 1993 in anticipation of the bill's passage. Most of these children had little education, and few other opportunities to acquire one or to obtain alternative legal employment. As a result, many of these children turned to street hustling, stone crushing, and prostitution — all of which, the report notes, are much more hazardous and exploitative than garment production (UNICEF, 1997: 60).
["Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation"
Matt Zwolinski
Business Ethics Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Oct., 2007), pp. 689-727
Published by: Philosophy Documentation Center
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27673206]

From the UNICEF report:

An Agreement In Bangledesh
An important initiative to protect child workers is unfolding in Bangladesh. The country’s powerful garment industry is committing itself to some dramatic new measures by an agreement signed in 1995. The country is one of the world’s major garment exporters, and the industry, which employs over a million workers, most of them women, also employed child labour. In 1992, between 50,000 and 75,000 of its workforce were children under 14, mainly girls. The children were illegally employed according to national law, but the situation captured little attention, in Bangladesh or elsewhere, until the garment factories began to hide the children from United States buyers or lay off the children, following the introduction of the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 by US Senator Tom Harkin. The Bill would have prohibited the importation into the US of goods made using child labour. Then, when Senator Harkin reintroduced the Bill the following year, the impact was far more devastating:garment employers dismissed an estimated 50,000 children from their factories, approximately 75 per cent of all children in the industry. The consequences for the dismissedchildren and their parents were not anticipated. The children may have been freed, but at the same time they were trapped in a harsh environment with no skills, little or no education, and precious few alternatives. Schools were either inaccessible, useless or costly. A series of follow-up visits by UNICEF, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) discovered that children went looking for new sources of income, and found them in work such as stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution — all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. In several cases, the mothers of dismissed children had to leave their jobs in order to look after their children. Out of this unhappy situation and after two years of difficult negotiations, a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed in July 1995 by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and the UNICEF and ILO offices in Bangladesh. The resulting programme was to be funded by these three organizations. BGMEA alone has committed about $1 million towards the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding. Under the terms of the agreement, four key provisions were formulated:
• the removal of all under-age workers — those below 14 — within a period of four months;
• no further hiring of under-age children;
• the placement of those children removed from the garment factories in appropriate educational programmes with a monthly stipend;
• the offer of the children’s jobs to qualified adult family members.
The Memorandum of Understanding explicitly directed factory owners, in the best interests of these children, not to dismiss any child workers until a factory survey was completed and alternative arrangements could be made for the freed children....
[http://origin-www.unicef.org/spanish/publications/files/pub_sowc97_en.pdf. Panel 12; pg.60.]

The argument that closing sweatshops leads to prostitution appears a valid one, as according to a 1997 report by UNICEF, it happened once in Bangladesh. According to that same report, provisions were established to prevent it from happening again (in Bangladesh).
(Personal opinion: There's too little evidence to determine whether the argument is actually sound. It happened once, though, and I find little reason to assume conditions in other countries are so different than they were in Bangladesh. However, thus concluding that sweatshops are good would be a misstep. One should rather conclude that if one is to close a sweatshop, provide alternative employment or enable and equip the workers to find their own alternative employment.)


Nice! Thanks a lot, that is just what I was looking for.

It seems obvious that taking options away from people can't improve their situation. But that is not necessarily true. Saying that silently assumes that their environment remains exactly the same and does not update on the information that the option is no longer available.

As a simple model, imagine that there are three possible choices: a crappy job, a good job, and no job. With no job, the child dies from starvation, but the employer makes no money. With crappy job, the child barely survives, and the employer makes a lot of money. With good job, the child is happy, and the employer makes smaller profit.

In this situation, the employer can improve their outcome by precommiting to not use the "good job" option. That is actually a very simple thing to do for an employer, because job seekers typically only apply for the offered positions, and don't go to job interviews suggesting that a new position should be created specifically for them (because employing them in the new position would be better for the company than not employing them at all). At this moment, the best remaining choice for the child is to take the crappy job. -- But if the law makes crappy jobs illegal, the best remaining move for the employer is to offer a good job. So, having less options in this specific case could improve the situation for the child.

The problem is what happens when some crappy jobs are removed from the market, but other crappy jobs remain. Will children move to better jobs, or just to those other crappy jobs?

I would guess that it depends on how easily the employers can move to other forms of business. It could be relatively easy for Joe the factory owner to become Joe the pimp. But even for him there could be negative consequences, e.g. losing a lot of status. But I doubt that companies like Walmart, Tesco, Nike, Adidas, Disney, Starbucks etc. could easily switch to become international prostitution networks. On the other hand, these big companies have an option to just move to another country where the law is less strict; which would be more expensive for Joe the local small factory owner.

Conclusion: A simplistic analysis is insufficient, we need real data. It is also quite possible that the outcome will be mixed; that by closing sweatshops x children will move to better jobs, y children will move to child prostitution, and z children will starve to death.

On theoretical grounds it almost has to be true if there is a significant overlap between the types of children who work in sweatshops and those who work as prostitutes.

This doesn't just go one way. Labor competition is labor competition - I would expect places where the (adult) sex trade is tolerated would have better conditions in their sweatshops. And so I would expect sweatshop owners to lead moralistic crusades against prostitution.

I've heard of the latter, but I have no info on the former.

Do you mean better conditions in adult sweatshops? I would expect child workers would only be in better conditions if there is competition with their labor.

Then again, if adults can get more pay, they wouldn't need their kids to work. This would also likely lead to worse pay, since parents could afford to care less about that in proportion to conditions.

There were a few too many pronouns in that last sentence. Not sure what you mean.

If you give the adults more options as to what jobs they work at, they can make more money. If they can make more money, then they don't need their kids to make as much money. If they don't need their kids to make as much money, they will care more about working conditions than about pay.

I looked for a paper or something by Maskus but came up empty.

Note that the book is clear that Maskus is telling this directly to the author of the book, so you should not be expecting to find this quote in any papers.


That's right - I was hoping to find other relevant work by the guy, in case this was an area of expertise.

Have you tried asking him?

The following link is to the UNICEF report in its entirety.


The report talks about, but doesn't delve too deeply, the issue of how displacing child workers from sweatshops can lead to worse consequences for these children (p. 24). More importantly, it talks about the complexity of the situation beyond rhetoric. Sweatshops and exploitative child labor are caused by myriad factors. Solving these goes well beyond either supporting or boycotting companies like Nike who employs over 100,000 people in Indonesia.

"Why Economists Are Wrong About Sweatshops and the Antisweatshop Movement"
John Miller
Challenge, Vol. 46, No. 1 (JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2003), pp. 93-122
Published by: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40722184

Of interest, but only uses the word 'prostitutes' once.

The following implies that it's an obvious logical argument:

... For some activists the trafficking of women into the sex industry is morally wrong and exploitative because of its association with commercial sex, while for others forced prostitution is inseparable from global inequities of capital and labor that leave women in the global economy with few viable options aside from sweatshop labor or the typically more lucrative sex industry work.
[Soderlund, G. (2005). "Running from the rescuers: New U.S. crusades against sex trafficking and the rhetoric of abolition." NWSA Journal, 17(3), 64-87. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/ff/summary/v017/17.3soderlund.html]

I think we're finally getting somewhere:

Hence, too, the often uncritical feminist embrace of a figure like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who rants and rages against the exploitation of female prostitutes halfway across the globe, even as he sings the praises of sweatshops. The faulty logic at work here—that closing sweatshops forces people into prostitution—not only problematically relies upon Kristof’s own moralizing determination that the sex industry unilaterally offers comparatively worse wages and working conditions than the sweatshop industry but also, incredibly, offers sweatshops as a solution to the problem of poverty driving many to work in any number of different capacities for very low wages in terrible conditions.
["Sex, Work, and the Feminist Erasure of Class"
Brooke Meredith Beloso
Signs, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), pp. 47-70
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Article DOI: 10.1086/665808
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/665808]

I finally found something. I put it in a new comment.

It seems pretty obvious that it would. Those two jobs compete for the same workforce. What's less obvious is exactly how much child prostitution it leads to. My instinct is that the first order effects are more important.

Of course, finding reliable evidence that it's true and finding reliable evidence of the extent to which it's true are pretty much the same thing, so this doesn't matter all that much.

No help on finding the study, but for people who are only interested in problems where there's a lurid sensationalistic sex aspect, it's worth noting that sweatshop workers have about as much protection against sexual harassment as they do against any other abuse by management. Is having sex as a job worse than having sex in order to keep a job? The former often pays better.

How? Why would they work in a sweatshop if they could make more money as a prostitute?

The obvious answer would be that they have to have much more sex as a prostitute. After all, one prostitute can serve several clients, but a lot of workers only have one boss.

Prostitution is a more dangerous profession and is lower status.

If prostitution doesn't involve more sex, why would it be more dangerous and lower status?

It was an answer to

Why would they work in a sweatshop if they could make more money as a prostitute?

Of course prostitution involves more sex.

Prostitution is often illegal; perhaps as Luke Somers suggests this is encouraged by sweatshop owners trying to eliminate competition for workers. There is also a history in many places of using "rescued" prostitutes as essentially slave labor, as in the notorious Magdalene laundries in Ireland.

Actually, prostitution is rarely illegal, especially in the past. In particular, it is legal today in Bangladesh and has always been legal in Ireland. Though child prostitution is not legal in either place today.

Admittedly, the actual exchange of sex for money is, as you say, not illegal in Ireland, but it's virtually impossible for a prostitute to work there without breaking some law or involving someone else in lawbreaking, because most activities associated with prostitution are illegal (operating a brothel or keeping any premises for the purpose of prostitution, advertising, and soliciting are all illegal, and anyone employed by prostitutes, as, say, a driver or to provide security is also breaking Irish law). Bangladesh appears to be similar, though perhaps with a few less such laws. Places which don't arm the police with plenty of excuses to harass prostitutes are quite rare.


No help with evidence here, but a thought:

This sort of argument is generally made in favor of globalization and other such economic arrangements. However, is it actually a real dichotomy? In the context of an extremely globalized world in which developed nations have the economic clout to extract labor at ridiculously low prices, closing any individual sweatshop-factory is on the margin going to push people into worse poverty. That sort of economic system is not the only option, however, and actions to end that system potentially produce outcomes better than 'prostitute' or 'sweatshop worker'.

at ridiculously low prices

probably not when compared to the productivity of the workers.

That sort of economic system is not the only option, however,

True, but many of these other options are much, much worse and there might not exist a practical superior option.

If we increase globalization, we can save money, which means we can donate more money, which means that we can do more to generally increase the conditions in third world countries.