The silly sweatshop game

sweatshop_game_logoThere’s a new game making the rounds, it’s called Sweatshop (hat tip). I thought to mention it before a bunch of people start sending me the link and asking me what I thought about it.

The game scenario: you’re a newly hired supervisor at a “sweatshop”, in charge of hiring workers and meeting quotas. You have the choice of hiring various kinds of workers from children to more highly skilled (hat vs garment makers etc) and you even have the option to invest in worker improvements so they perform better.

I played thinking it might be a useful exercise in load balancing and the cost benefits of investing in employee education and well being -which wasn’t exactly what the game’s creator had in mind. It was difficult to attempt to do a sincere job of it because the rhetoric and examples were so over the top as to be offensive to anyone’s intelligence and credulity. If you want to affect change, you can’t use the same rhetoric on the opposing camp that you use when preaching to your choir. Which is not to say the game won’t be popular (not to be confused with generating effective change). The game would have been far more effective at generating positive change by showing cost and profit benefits were led by investing in workers in meaningful ways.

I think the major downfall of the game is that one who knows production (presumably the sweatshop owners this is aimed at) can’t modify the configuration to reflect conditions beyond the caricatures (who runs caps in the same line as tops?). The game is designed to be played by people who already agree sweatshops are a terrible, horrible thing (that would be us too) but there are problems with accuracy, specifically defining quotas etc. And of course, the definition of a sweatshop is never made clear. Some people seem to think any sewing factory is an oppressive operation and others think an operation that doesn’t pay at least the US minimum wage (overseas) is guilty of the same. Good thing it’s not French people playing a game scenario featuring US workers. They would think we were all oppressed based on the 40 hour work week. In short, be cautious when applying norms from one culture to another.

The game purports to be educational. Maybe it will be that. Maybe someone thinking of starting a clothing factory will play it and realize they should not be evil. I think that percentage will be very small -if any. I think more players who already agree sweatshops are horrid places will have their beliefs and stereotypes reinforced but they’re not in the garment industry and don’t intend to enter it.

I was hoping the game would be a useful modeling tool that could be used to effectively demonstrate that output and quality gains are optimized by respecting one’s workforce but the game’s mechanism seems to prevent a positive outcome from humanitarian and profit minded players. I will play it more. Maybe some of you aren’t as game inept and will get through the levels faster to see if it is possible to do that.

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  1. Leslie Hanes says:

    I don’t use sweatshops. I use overpaid Canadian labor, and reasonably paid and extremely well treated Mexican labor. I visit the factory and they are all pretty happy campers.
    But, I do agree that you can’t apply your culture to other countries. In some countries, these poorly paid jobs are sought after like gold. The alternative is no-pay no-job no-food. Without offering cheap labor no company would employ these people, and they could die of starvation.
    So, I think they have a place. I don’t agree with unsafe conditions and there are things I would change if I could. But still, it aint all bad in the big picture, when you consider the alternatives.
    Its easy to be a righteous judge from a distance, particularly when you live in a country where poor people can get food stamps. I’m just sayin’….

  2. Amanda says:

    Never mind that we also live in a country where undocumented immigrant workers can get fabulous under-the-table factory jobs that pay 2.00 an hour (or 50 cents a piece or whatever) with horrifying working conditions–like, say, working 15 hours straight, all through the night, at your own kitchen table with the baby crawling around your feet. “Made in USA” is not necessarily synonymous with fair labor practices. It’s a really hard nut to crack. You can never be sure, but you have to be as careful as you can be.

  3. Nitalynn says:

    Please note before I say anything else that I have not played the game and probably won’t. I am too easily sucked into games and waste too much time if I let myself. That said I would assume that if the game maker(s) were trying to pass on any type of social message it is probably aimed at buyers rather than manufacturers and that is a good idea. Also going “over the top” would be a more positive reinforcement to those who don’t know the ropes than those who do.
    The only real way to change the manufacturers hearts and minds (aimed at the ones engaged in the practice not the good ones) is to make practice immediately less profitable (because sustaining growth while disregarding the needs of your workers is difficult bordering on impossible). Aiming the program making the practice unpopular with the general public is a positive thing. I don’t know how successful they will be if that truly is part of their agenda. Sweatshops are in the news and there owners and operators make good villains.

  4. Amanda says:

    It’s so true about “cottage industry”! More “american-made” labels than people realize use shops which in turn farm out work to work-from-home stitchers with no regard whatever for working hours and conditions, just a (usually very fast) deadline to meet. These people know very well that a hard-working seamstress with a family to feed will be her own nightmare boss, given a hard deadline and a do-whatever-it-takes-to-produce the work attitude. I mean, sure, I have done it to myself a million times, but it’s just as easy to do it to somebody else, and it saves having anybody come inspect your OSHA compliance and your time sheets. It’s just really hard to know sometimes, and a small, sweet-looking family shop can be really, really bad in this area, worse than the dreaded “sweatshop” full of 60 workers who work really hard all day, but get paid and get to go home at 6 (or 7) and have a life.

  5. Minor note – the game provides a definition of “sweatshop” after the first level:

    “UNITE, the US garment workers union, defines a ”sweatshop” as any factory that does not respect workers’ right to organise an independent union. Global Exchange and other anti-sweatshop movements would add that a sweatshop is any workplace that does not pay its workers a Living Wage, that is enough money to live off and support the basic needs of their families.”

    Also, the game was commissioned by Channel 4 as an educational game for teens. That is, it is not aimed at people in the garment industry, or really at people aiming to enter the garment industry, but rather at children aged 10-14 who are starting to make purchasing decisions about garments.

    Interestingly, I had almost the opposite problem from yours. I never really felt incentivised to exploit my workers, because the game seemed to be set up to reward more ethical choices – or at least not to punish them severely. Which made it seem like putting workers in unsafe working conditions or denying them water was a caprice – it makes the existence of poor working practices seem like the perversity of a bad local boss rather than part of a continuum of commerce.

  6. Victoria says:

    Leslie, before we march of off and are the good-deed doers offering jobs to make our sewn products to poor straving people… we need to realize WHY they are poor and starving… as a naturalist, in the natural world I have I never scene mass starvation of robins, squirrels, etc. one a regular basis. Yet, we have human conditions where humans are regularly in such precarious positions… the European and Asian empire builders did not come across tribes of people the world over that were starving and desparate. No greedy powerful humans acquired the natural resources that sustained tribal people the world over and forced an oppressive culture over their head… today greedy governments (often the country of the opprssed people themselves) and greedy corporations maintain these conditions to keep a cheap labor force. Akin to modern day slavery, but normalized and legal.

  7. Fawnetta says:

    Too bad about the game–there are some great business sims out there, and there’s no reason that a clothing industry sim couldn’t be entertaining, relevant and plausible at the same time.

  8. Laura says:

    Haven’t played the game, but I may decide to try it. Apparently, according to the game’s definition, I worked in sweatshops. I don’t agree that a manufacturer must respect worker’s rights to organize a union. I would like manufacturers to offer fair wages, good benefits, etc., without having to be coerced. I believe that unions destroyed the auto industry by demanding that workers be given ridiculous benefit packages and enormous wages way out of line with experience and education. The auto industry (execs, workers and unions) figured they could keep on charging more and more for cars, regardless of the quality of their products and competition from foreign auto-makers. After all, making cars generates lots of jobs besides those directly involved in building cars. There are companies that make car parts, like wheel covers or stereos, that sell to auto makers. I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I think unions are like ticks. They attach themselves to the workers by exploiting real or imagined problems. The worker is the first host, but their aim is to suck the life (the money) out of the corporation.

    Nowadays in the US, workers are supposed to be upset by how much “executives” make compared to their workers. Personally, I feel that if I pay the lease or build, furnish machinery, pay wages, taxes, and all the other expenses involved, I’m the one taking a big risk employing people and yes, I should make more money as my company prospers.

    My mother was a member of Communication Workers of America. She was so proud and happy to be a union member when Southern Bell was unionized. Every week, union dues were taken out of her check. After many years of paying union dues, she had an issue that she brought before the union. She was being over-looked for promotions and job-bids because of her age. By this time, the union and the company had joined forces against the workers. Issues were decided between union stewards and company execs. Any disagreement between the company and the union was carefully choreographed so that the union maintained its membership, the company maintained control of business and workers were none the wiser about being screwed by both sides. She retired from BellSouth with excellent bennies and a very nice pension. Unions have done some good things, but the reality is that they are not really out to benefit the worker, they are out to benefit their stewards and executives and to wield political power. Many workers know this instinctively and do not want to unionize. They understand the worker/employer relationship. Worker shows up on time, does work, gets paid while employer provides work, hopefully access to healthcare insurance, dental insurance etc. and pays workers. The worker/employer/union relationship is not so easy to understand. Worker pays union forever. Union negotiates for higher wages, better bennies or better working conditions. Employer pays worker and all the costs associated with providing jobs, then pays union off so they can control it, too.

  9. “I would like manufacturers to offer fair wages, good benefits, etc., without having to be coerced.”
    We’d all like that. But some do need to be coerced. Triangle Shirtwaist was not unionized. When workers are treated well, they do not bother forming a union.

    “I don’t agree that a manufacturer must respect worker’s rights to organize a union.”
    Well, in most jurisdictions in North America you are mistaken. This is how employers behaved before legislation protected workers’ right to organize: Now they just close their shops.

  10. Kathleen says:

    Alison, unions in the lower 48 have changed quite a bit. They’ve become big businesses themselves (points Laura brings up). A good example is Toyota. The UAW has tried to form a union at their various plants for many years –counter to the expressed wishes of people who work there.

    Milt Sizemore has had enough of the United Auto Workers union. He’s tired of the annual recruiting drives and all of the promises that come with them. Like hundreds of other workers at Toyota Motor Corp.’s massive factory here, he just wants to do his job and go home.

    I’ve heard much worse. That workers get very angry at union organizers and mock them in counter demonstrations because Toyota workers are the highest paid autoworkers in the US (after the Mercedes-Benz plant) and they don’t want to have to give the union money when they’re doing fine on their own. Workers also object to union work rules. Long story that.

  11. anonymous coward says:

    I understand that unions have changed since the 1950s when they became normalized. I work in a union shop myself, though I am not personally unionized, and I understand some of the downsides.

    I also appreciate the benefits, and I appreciate that some of the working conditions I take for granted were won for me by organized labor. They raised the level of the whole playing field.

    Yes of course there are problems with labor unions. They are a human institution. The solution Laura proposed was to let employers decide whether their employees should be unionized or not (that one’s easy: not!). In the complete absence of labor unions, we know what conditions were/are like. We know that when workers attempt to improve their conditions by negotiating collectively with their employers instead of individually, they are fired and thrown off the premises. Which sometimes means firing on them.

    When employers are not accountable to employees, working conditions are unsafe and inhumane and the work is poorly compensated. The risks associated with working are borne by the employees.

    While the professionals working for my employer don’t typically express any desire to be unionized, they often work unpaid hours. There are teams comprised primarily of foreign-born professionals whose peers outside the organization are driving taxis. If the workload increases and there are layoffs, they take their work home and work nights and weekends. This becomes standard practice. Performance is defined in such a way that one cannot meet targets without working unpaid nights and weekends *all the time.* They are not management and they are not running their own businesses, and for the most part it’s not particularly creative. They are employees. They are being exploited because they are vulnerable (or perceive themselves to be vulnerable). They are very valuable, so when someone leaves (which they occasionally do) there is a big kerfuffle. But not much changes.

    I am not so naive as to think that people are different, or that employers are different, or that capitalism works differently now compared to sixty years ago. The gap that labor unions fill today would reappear if they disappeared/ reappears when they disappear.

    Labor unions have problems, some serious (just ask anyone who works for one). But if you are going to forbid workers to organize, then you need a better alternative than “I think employers should be nice.” Simply the threat that provoked workers might organize is sufficient to keep some employers in line. Remove that threat and abuses would increase.

    When talking about the benefits of working for a non-union shop, remember the context: these shops exist in a country where they compete with union shops for employees, and where organized labor has fought for common labor standards.

  12. anon. coward 2 says:

    I’ve worked in both union and non-union shops. Different unions affect the work, salaries, benefits and employees differently. I didn’t like some of the union rules affecting work like mandatory breaks in some shops, but I did like the benefits–and other things–like double time if you had to work through lunch–which I did more than once. One year one of the unions tried to unionize the non-union shops, which caused the owners of the non-union shops to meet to try to figure out what to do–how to keep the union out. One outcome was that the non-union shops started having holiday days–not necessarily paid but you didn’t have to work that day and a few other perks/changes, which I cannot remember right now. Most of the non-unions shops were quite a bit smaller than the union shops with most of the workers not that interested in joining a union. I think size makes a difference in that if you have a small company the employees are more likely to know the owner and have a different kind of relationship with the business. They would be the least interested in joining a union I think.

    I agree with a lot of what Anonymous Coward says. There are so many fair labor practices and laws we [can] take for granted because of the work of labor organizers and unions. The ugly side of unions, such as graft, is not new–look at union history in the 1940-50’s. I think it’s interesting that the anti-union workers in the example that Kathleen cites are in the South. Southern states have notoriously anti-union–with many business and politicians union-busting–and poor. I can’t help think that that history of “just be glad you have a job” kind of mentality is at least partly at work here. Maybe the Toyota plant doesn’t need the union to do right by their workers, but as Anon. Coward says above, having the unions helps create that template. Also the article says a third of the Toyota workers were interested in unionizing–so it’s not as if everyone feels the same.

    I have mixed feelings about unions. I had mixed feeling before I worked in a union environment, during my work in union and non-union shops, and now after. Given a choice I would probably want to work in a union shop, though. I had more job security in a union shop and things were more predictable.

  13. anon. coward 2 says:

    Oh, I should add that none of the non-union shops I worked in offered benefits such as vacation pay, health insurance, sick days, but the union shops did.

  14. Lisa says:

    Union…Non-union! I have worked …cottage industry style…and it was not great, but it did afford me the opportunity to be there for my kids because I could not afford a sitter and had to stay home and take care of a disabled child. I would much rather have some money than starve or be on welfare. I know this is not the PC way- but without this type of work I would have been homeless. No thanks! Sure in the ideal world everyone gets fair wages, decent insurance, the ability to leave a good paying job and go home to their children/families after a full day of working, a couple of days off per week, and maybe a vacation- but don’t take away what affords many of these people to live. These PC people (do gooders) are taking away the only chance some people have to just survive. Think…before your conscience makes my family lose my house, or takes away my choice of being with my children in a safe environment. I may be busy sewing all the units in a tight time frame, but I know where my kids are and that they are safe…..

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