Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 156, Issue 1, pp 59–69 | Cite as

Exploiting Injustice in Mutually Beneficial Market Exchange: The Case of Sweatshop Labor

  • András MiklósEmail author
Original Paper


Mutually beneficial exchanges in markets can be exploitative because one party takes advantage of an underlying injustice. For instance, employers of sweatshop workers are often accused of exploiting the desperate conditions of their employees, although the latter accept the terms of their employment voluntarily. A weakness of this account of exploitation is its tendency for over-inclusiveness. Certainly, given the prevalence of global and domestic socioeconomic inequalities, not all exchanges that take place against background injustices should be considered exploitative. This paper offers a framework to identify exploitation in mutually beneficial exchange, focusing on the case of sweatshop labor. It argues that an employer can be viewed as taking unfair advantage of an underlying injustice if and only if the employer’s surplus from the exchange in the unjust state of affairs exceeds the surplus it could maximally obtain in a just state of affairs. The paper illustrates the applicability of this framework using three different conceptions of justice and argues that it is superior to microlevel accounts of exploitation that regard background justice as irrelevant. The paper concludes by describing some normative implications that follow from judging an exchange exploitative.


Exploitation Fairness Human rights Inequality Justice Labor conditions Sweatshops 



I thank the editor, two anonymous referees and Jeanine Miklós-Thal for helpful comments on a prior draft of this paper.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


  1. Arneson, R. (1989). Equality and equal opportunity for welfare. Philosophical Studies, 56(1), 77–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arnold, D. G. (2003). Exploitation and the sweatshop quandary. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(2), 243–256.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arnold, D. G., & Bowie, N. E. (2003). Sweatshops and the respect for persons. Business Ethics Quarterly, 13(2), 221–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arnold, D. G., & Bowie, N. E. (2007). Respect for workers in the global supply chains: Advancing the debate over sweatshops. Business Ethics Quarterly, 17(1), 135–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Arnold, D. G., & Hartman, L. (2005). Beyond sweatshops: Positive deviancy and global labor practices. Business Ethics: A European Review, 14(3), 206–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Arnold, D. G., & Hartman, L. (2006). Worker rights and low wage industrialization. Human Rights Quarterly, 28(3), 676–700.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Blanc, S. (2016). Are Rawlsian considerations of corporate governance illiberal? A reply to singer. Business Ethics Quarterly, 26(3), 407–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Broome, J. (1991). Fairness. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 91(1), 87–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Caney, S. (2005). Justice beyond borders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clark, J. R., & Powell, B. (2013). Sweatshop working conditions and employee welfare: Say it ain’t sew. Comparative Economic Studies, 55(2), 343–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Coakley, M., & Kates, M. (2013). The ethical and economic case for sweatshop regulation. Journal of Business Ethics, 117(3), 553–558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cohen, G. A. (1989). On the currency of egalitarian justice. Ethics, 99(4), 906–944.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cohen, J., & Sabel, C. (2006). Extra rempublicam nulla justitia? Philosophy & Public Affairs, 34(2), 147–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Crane, A. (2013). Modern slavery as a management practice: Exploring the conditions and capabilities for human exploitation. Academy of Management Review, 38(1), 49–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Daniels, N. (2008). Just health. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Dworkin, R. M. (2000). Sovereign virtue. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Goodin, R. (1987). Exploiting a situation and exploiting a person. In A. Reeve (Ed.), Modern theories of exploitation (pp. 166–200). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  18. Harrison, A., & Scorse, J. (2010). Multinationals and anti-sweatshop activism. American Economic Review, 100(1), 247–273.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kates, M. (2015). The ethics of sweatshops and the limits of choice. Business Ethics Quarterly, 25(2), 191–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kim, T. W. (2016). Gamification of labor and the charge of exploitation. Journal of Business Ethics. doi: 10.1007/s10551-016-3304-6 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Maitland, I. (1997). The great non-debate over international sweatshops. British Academy of Management Annual Conference Proceedings, 1997, 240–265.Google Scholar
  22. Mayer, R. (2003). Payday loans and exploitation. Public Affairs Quarterly, 17(3), 197–217.Google Scholar
  23. Mayer, R. (2007a). Sweatshops, exploitation, and moral responsibility. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38(4), 605–619.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Mayer, R. (2007b). What’s wrong with exploitation? Journal of Applied Philosophy, 24(2), 137–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Meyers, C. (2004). Wrongful beneficence: Exploitation and third world sweatshops. Journal of Social Philosophy, 35(3), 319–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Meyers, C. (2007). Moral duty, individual responsibility, and sweatshop exploitation. Journal of Social Philosophy, 38(4), 620–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Miklós, A. (2011). The basic structure and the principles of justice. Utilitas, 23(2), 161–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Miller, D. (2007). National responsibility and global justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Moellendorf, D. (2002). Cosmopolitan justice. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  30. Nagel, T. (2005). The problem of global justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 33(2), 113–147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nussbaum, M. (2000). Women and human development: the capabilities approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Pearce, F. (2012). The land grabbers. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  33. Pogge, T. W. (2000). On the site of distributive justice: Reflections on cohen and murphy. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 29(2), 139–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Pogge, T. W. (2002). World poverty and human rights. Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  35. Powell, B. (2014). Out of poverty: Sweatshops in the global economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Powell, B. (Forthcoming). Sweatshop regulations: Tradeoffs and welfare judgements. Journal of Business Ethics.Google Scholar
  37. Powell, B., & Skarbek, D. (2006). Sweatshops and third world living standards: Are the jobs worth the sweat? Journal of Labor Research, 27(2), 263–274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Powell, B., & Zwolinski, M. (2012). The ethical and economic case against sweatshop labor: A critical assessment. Journal of Business Ethics, 107(4), 449–472.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Preiss, J. (2014). Global labor justice and the limits of economic analysis. Business Ethics Quarterly, 24(1), 55–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice (Rev ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Risse, M. (2012). On global justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Roemer, J. (1988). Free to lose. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Roemer, J. (1998). Equality of opportunity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Sample, R. J. (2003). Exploitation: What it is and why it’s wrong. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  45. Sangiovanni, A. (2007). Global justice, reciprocity, and the state. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35(1), 3–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Scheffler, S. (1982). The rejection of consequentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Schleper, M. C., Blome, C., & Wuttke, D. A. (2017). The dark side of buyer power: Supplier exploitation and the role of ethical climates. Journal of Business Ethics, 140(1), 97–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sen, A. (1992). Inequality reexamined. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Singer, A. (2015). There is no Rawlsian theory of corporate governance. Business Ethics Quarterly, 25(1), 65–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Snyder, J. (2008). Needs exploitation. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 11(4), 389–405.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Snyder, J. (2009). What’s the matter with price gouging? Business Ethics Quarterly, 19(2), 275–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Snyder, J. (2010). Exploitation and sweatshop labor: Perspectives and issues. Business Ethics Quarterly, 20(2), 187–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Steiner, H. (1984). A liberal theory of exploitation. Ethics, 94(2), 225–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Valdman, M. (2008). Exploitation and injustice. Social Theory and Practice, 34(4), 551–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wertheimer, A. (1996). Exploitation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Wood, A. (1995). Exploitation. Social Philosophy and Policy, 12(2), 136–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Zwolinski, M. (2007). Sweatshops choice and exploitation. Business Ethics Quarterly, 17(4), 689–727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Zwolinski, M. (2012). Structural exploitation. Social Philosophy and Policy, 29(1), 154–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Simon Business SchoolUniversity of RochesterRochesterUSA

Personalised recommendations