A couple weeks ago, 112 workers were killed during a fire in a Bangladesh clothing factory. Though this factory had multiple safety violations, it continued to operate because of the high demand for cheap clothing from consumers. Sears and Walmart were among the retail clients of the Tazreen Fashions Factory, along with European brand C&A which had an order for 220,000 sweaters. Though there are controls in place to ensure the safety of workers in the garment industry, this fire is proof that the system is failing.
The garment industry has continuously exploited workers as far back as 1911, when a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caused the deaths of 146 workers. Many of these people were unable to escape the flames because a stairway door had been locked by management to prevent theft by the workers. In a Dec. 6 New York Times article about the Tazreen fire, Jim Yardley writes that “Fire safety precautions were woefully inadequate…Mounds of flammable yarn and fabric were illegally stored on the ground floor near electrical generators.”
With Christmas less than a week from now, I can’t help but think about these exploited garment workers as I buy clothes for my three teenage children. Where do the jeans I’ve bought my son come from? Do the workers receive fair wages? Do they work in safe conditions? Are children forced to work in the factory? And what about the sweaters I’ve purchased for my girls? Did they come from the Tazreen Fashions Factory? How can I find out?
The only thing I know for sure is that every piece of clothing I’ve bought was made in China, Bangladesh or India. Even stalwart Canadian brands like Lululemon and Roots are having items produced in China now. How can I be sure these things are made under good conditions? Sears and Walmart had no clue that Tazreen Factory was making clothing for their stores.
One way to stop factory exploitation would be for everyone on the planet to stop buying clothes with unknown origins. Obviously, this is not remotely possible, but we can ask more questions, and insist that retailers provide detailed information about where their products are made. The International Labor Organization, for instance, estimates that more than 7,000 children ages 5 to 14 work up to 11 hours a day in India stitching sports balls. And it is so difficult for cocoa producers to make enough to even cover the costs of production, that many have turned to child and slave labor, especially in the Ivory Coast.
For these reasons, I’m going to start buying as much as possible through fair trade, where there is limited environmental impact, where there is no child labor, where wages are fair and conditions are safe. Consider Me to We which offers a line of accessories handcrafted by artisans in Free the Children countries around the globe. The purchase of one item helps provide employment to women in the Massai Mara. Products sold by Me to We are also sustainably produced using as many local materials as possible. Through fair trade for spices like vanilla, cloves and cinnamon in 2009, more than $40,000 in community development funds went back to small-scale producer groups in India, Sri Lanka and Uganda, funding training for organic farming and environmental sustainability.
For 2013, I’m going to commit to more thoughtful purchases, to buying fair trade products whenever possible, and I’m going to keep track of what I buy to see how my shopping decisions evolve over the year. I know I can’t stop worker exploitation singlehandedly, which is why I’m asking you to join me on my journey. If you’re considering a piece of jewellery or a shirt, look at the price and where it’s made. If it’s cheap and comes from China, chances are it was made by a worker receiving low wages in a poorly-run factory. Ask yourself if you really need the item, or if you should look at other options like fair trade.
The only way to prevent another tragedy like the one at Tazreen Fashion Factory, is to stifle demand for its products. If we start demanding more accountability, and show our abhorrence for slave labor conditions by rejecting items made in these conditions, retailers will take notice and oversee factory operations more closely and more critically.