Flyers dominate my local paper today—248 pages of ads compared to 32 pages of editorial content. Deals are rampant with savings of 40 percent at Home Outfitters, half-price offerings at Staples, a clearance sale at Payless, 30 to 50 percent off at Sportchek, and thousands of prices rolled back at Walmart. With bath towels going for $2.88 at Walmart, it’s obvious the store has to sell a lot to make any money. And with people looking for the absolute lowest prices, this selling strategy pays off in spades, especially in the garment industry.
I admit I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to wanting the best prices, but in researching fair trade, I’ve come to see that our North American desire for the cheapest goods is fuelling a growing Sweat Shop industry with dangerous working conditions, forced child labor, and unfair wages. Future growth of this unconscionable industry will be driven by the increasing demand for lower costs. As I see it, the only way to reverse this disturbing trend is to change the way we shop: we need to demand accountability and transparency from retailers, and we need to be willing to pay more for items made by people who receive fair wages.
The following information, from the International Labor Rights Forum, makes me regret past purchases and wonder how I’ll ever be comfortable buying clothing again:
- There are 7 million child workers in Bangladesh and 1.3 million of them work in hazardous conditions.
- In Viet Nam detention centers, some 40,000 men, women and children are being held against their will and forced to produce t-shirts, trousers, nylon jackets, shopping bags, and to process cashews.
- In India, more than 30,000 young women work in a camp labor system where they’re confined to the factory compound, work excessive hours, and receive low pay.
- Since 2006, more than 500 garment workers have died in sweat shop fires sewing clothing for H & M, the Gap and Abercrombie.
- Every year the government of Uzbekistan forces over one million children, teachers, public and private sector employees to manually plant and harvest cotton.
- There is a decreased demand for products made in China because wages rose 40 percent in 2010 and 30 percent in 2011. This has led to a rise in the demand for Bangladesh goods, where the garment industry is founded on the lowest wages in the world, and poorly enforced health and safety standards.
The facts are grim and the details overwhelm me. Even when workers try to fight back against their poor situations, the results are disturbing. Bangladesh, for example, is the world’s second largest exporter of apparel with $19.1 billion of exports in 2011 to 2012. Bangladesh workers are also the lowest paid in the world with a minimum wage of $37 a month.
On June 21, 2012, 15 major clothing brands including H & M, Tesco, the Gap, and Levi Strauss wrote a letter to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urging an annual review of the minimum wage. On July 19, 2012, 19 of the world’s top buyers of Bangladesh garments such as Walmart, Nike and Gap shared a consensus over labor unrest. On August 5, a headline in Asia Times stated, “Walmart leads call for higher pay in Bangladesh.” On Sept. 12, the New York Times ran a story about the murder of Aminul Islam, Bangaldesh labor activist and President of Bangladesh Garment & Industrial Workers. Something tells me there’s a connection between his murder and the mounting tension between Bangladesh workers and factory owners.
I want things to change. I want to buy clothes and electronics made by people working in safe factories receiving fair wages. I don’t want to look at t-shirts and think about children harvesting cotton so they can be made. That’s why I’m buying nothing except food and toiletries until I know exactly what brands I can trust, and until I find legitimate Fair Trade producers. I’ve also signed petitions through the International Labor Rights Forum asking companies producing Bangladesh clothing to join an agreement for fire and building safety; to Walmart asking to stop abuses in factories; to Adidas to pay a severance to workers owed $1.8 million; to H & M to end the practice in Uzbekistan forcing millions to manually plant and harvest cotton; and to end forced labor in Viet Nam. (You can sign these petitions at www.laborrights.org )
The solution to repression in developing countries lies with us, consumers who expect and demand low prices. We can’t hope for better wages and low-cost items. The two are incompatible as we can see from the lower demand for goods made in China, where wages have increased. Instead, we need to redefine our priorities, think harder about what we need and want, and be more discriminating when making purchases.
Perhaps we need to better balance the plethora of advertising in newspapers with more coverage of labor in developing countries. Perhaps we need to lower the number of sales and increase the amount we’re willing to pay.