I’m about ready to throw in the proverbial towel. Over the last few weeks, three things have made me wonder if the growth in fair trade is possible, or if it’s an idealistic fantasy. The first jolt came during a vacation in the Bahamas a couple of weeks ago. Discovering ridiculously cheap items “Made in China” in the Nassau straw market, I saw just how far-reaching sweat shops have become. Billed as a local attraction, the straw market sells handmade products such as bags, jewellery and wood carvings, along with things that have clearly not originated in the Bahamas—t-shirts, scarves, bathing suit cover-ups…all made in other places and probably not in safe working conditions.
As I wandered the hundreds of stalls, with women competing with each other to hawk their goods, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were caught in a giant sweat-shop web that spans the globe. Even in an island paradise, kitschy has replaced quaint when it comes to a local attraction that dates back to the 1940’s. Just as the World Wide Web’s net has been cast into communist countries like Viet Nam and China, sweat shops now occupy scenic corners of the world like the Bahamas where the straw market, which began as a place to sell authentically made products, now looks more like a flea market you’d find off the highway near Toronto.
The second blow came with the news that Target will open 24 stores in Ontario by April. Another discounter. Just what we need. Another store with deep price cuts thanks to third-world workers who are paid next to nothing to work in dangerous conditions. Will consumers ever consider quality over quantity? How many cheap purses, belts, jeans, leggings, sweaters, dresses, shoes, jackets, coats…do we need? Have we become so enamored with shopping that we think nothing of buying things just for the sake of it and thoughtlessly disposing of barely used items? With 24 new Target stores on the horizon, it seems obvious the answer is yes.
The third bombshell appeared on the front page of the New York Times on March 3—“Children in India’s Mines.”
“Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to Unicef. Child workers can be found everywhere—in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites.”
Twenty-eight million children. The approximate population of Canada. Twenty-eight million children. The number of people that make up the entirety of an industrialized nation. Surely this will catch people’s attention. Or will it? Though my sentimental heart says yes, my pragmatic mind disagrees. Because this has been going on for decades, or longer; because India is one of many places where children are forced to work; because discount stores like Target continue to expand with items made in sweatshops.
“Suresh Thapa, 17, said that he has worked in the mines “since he was a kid,” and he expects his four younger brothers to follow suit. He and his family live in a tiny tarp-and-stick shack near the mines. They have no running water, toilet or indoor heating….
“India’s Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines, but Suresh’s boss, Kumar Subba, said children work in mines throughout the region.”
Suresh earns between $37 to $74 a week, a teeny amount considering the fact that people working in mines “die all the time.”
And mines are just the beginning…children, as well as adults, are in danger making clothing and shoes in sweat shops where safety codes are ignored, swatted away like pesky mosquitos.
What is it going to take to make people change? Is it even possible? A remote possibility? Will consumers ever make the radical change to pay more for things made under fairly-paid conditions, with the idea that owning fewer items is preferable?
I’m holding the towel, and getting ready to throw it in.