RECOGNIZING THE PROBLEM
As I look through my closet I’m hard pressed to come across a single “Made in the USA” tag. Almost without exception, the companies that are infamous for their “sweatshop workforces” have manufactured my clothing. The term “sweatshop” is familiar to us all. The brands we see advertised everyday are embroiled in scandal over mistreatment of workers. The Gap (many times), Walmart, and Nike have been at the very center of such scandals in recent history. Manufacturers from many industrialized nations have found it in their best fiscal interest to exploit cheap labor around the globe while reaping aggressive profits. By way of outsourcing—using the pitifully cheap labor in foreign lands to avoid paying competitive wages in their home countries—corporations have rigged the system in their favor. These foreign lands suffer from severe poverty, and their people are not only willing, but happy, to work for pennies on the dollar. Practices of this nature are not foreign to American companies; on the contrary, American companies are specialists at global outsourcing.
In America child labor laws and minimum wage laws were implemented in 1924 and 1938 respectively. Up until then the laissez faire attitude of the US government allowed for many companies to exploit American workers, including women, children, and especially immigrants. Under the protection of these laws and many like them, it is more difficult to get away with exploitation today but it does continue to go undetected.
In 1911 a deadly fire engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City’s garment district. The fire killed 146 young women and men—they were trapped, having been locked onto various floors to prevent them from taking breaks. The tragedy brought widespread attention to the dangerous sweatshop conditions of the garment factories; over time, it led to the development of a series of laws and regulations to protect worker safety. Tragedies have contributed to furthering the rights and safe practices of workers in the United States. Fast forward to 2012, the New York Times reports on one of many factory fires in India killing 100 workers in 2012. The article adds that over 500 Bangladeshi workers have been killed in factory fires since 2006. As with New York’s Shirtwaist Factory fire the causes, sadly, remained the same: the factory’s location deep within cramped neighborhoods, too few fire escapes, and blatant disregard for safety measures. Why then do we, as American consumers, continue to accept worker conditions in foreign lands that we absolutely consider unacceptable in this land?
RECOGNIZING THE SOLUTION
If brands such as Walmart, Tommy Hilfiger and Gap (all of which engage this specific factory in Bangladesh) insist on conducting business with factories that ignore minimal worker safety precautions and fair wages, why should we promote them? It is difficult to shop responsibly. In today’s market the lure of cheap fashion is hard to ignore, we all want the newest trend—and we want it cheap. Is it worth buying an eleven-dollar sweater if the sweater comes at the expense of grossly exploited workers in China, El Salvador, Vietnam or anywhere for that matter? Can we conscientiously object to these manufacturers, is it possible to raise our expectations and thereby raise a corporation’s practices? We all deserve fair pay in exchange for fair work; we all deserve safe working conditions. We can identify and purchase from manufacturers that promote and promise fair practices. I myself am a fan of fashion, but let’s do our research, if we as consumers expect fair conditions we will impress upon manufacturers to insist on fair conditions. It matters, and the human multitudes across the globe that are reliant on the American consumer are worth the price of clear-conscience shopping.
Below are some links to online stores and fair trade websites to help you guide your search for kinder clothes. Let’s make improvements.