The 180

If sweatshops are bad, are roboshops better?

Adidas and Foxconn announced this week they plan to start replacing workers with robots. While that might seem like a boring business story, business ethics professor Christopher MacDonald says it raises a good question for ethical Canadian consumers.
A robotic leg tests a pair of Adidas soccer cleats at the sportswear company’s innovation laboratory in Herzogenaurach, Germany. ((Michael Dalder/Reuters))

This week, a company long accused of using sweatshop labour, announced a plan to replace workers with robots.

Sporting goods company Adidas, which Oxfam says makes its products in Asian sweatshops, announced the creation of a new factory to make its shoes. Instead of low-paid workers in Asia, the shoes will be made by robots in Germany. 

To philosopher and business ethicist Chris MacDonald, as robotics become cheaper, Canadians who oppose buying clothes from 'sweatshops' will face an ethical question: if sweatshops are bad for workers, is replacing them with robots good?

To MacDonald, an Associate Professor at Ryerson University, it would be easy for Canadians to think the ethically superior choice is to buy products from well-oiled robots in Europe, instead of from low-paid workers in substandard factories in Asia. But, there are other implications he'd like people to think about. 

Whether it's better for Canadians is not so much the point as whether it's good for the workers involved. Clearly it's not good news for the workers in the short run, because workers are going to be out of jobs. They're going to go from fairly bad jobs to no jobs at all.- Chris MacDonald, Ryerson University

Even though wealthy countries like Canada benefited from a historical process of cheap labour, rising wages, automation, and prosperity, MacDonald says there may come a point where robots can compete with workers in the world's poorest countries. 

Once upon a time it may have been practically essential to outsource your manufacturing to various parts of Asia, but if you can get robots to produce stuff cheaply enough here, then you can just save your shipping costs and have it made here. Good news for a certain kind of job here in North America, bad news for people who arguably needed it much more in the poorest parts of the world.- Chris MacDonald

On the whole, MacDonald is optimistic about the benefits that will come from robotics and advanced automation in the broader economy of the world. In the short term, though, it may mean more upheaval for workers in the developing world.

Click the play button above to hear the full interview