The clothing we choose to wear is like our second skin: it reflects our personal sense of style, taste, personality, culture and even beliefs and values.
Clothing and fashion is undoubtedly a massive part of our lives. In fact, the world clothing and textile industry generated $2,560 trillion in 2010 alone. And yet, despite our great love of fancy trims and trendy cuts few of us give much deep thought to the clothing we buy.
Have you ever wondered where your clothes come from, or how much effort is involved sewing the diamantes on your scarves, hem lines on your dresses, or buttons on your shirts? Have you ever given a thought to the voiceless people who work behind the scenes to provide you with your $5 tank tops, $15 sandals and $20 coats?
Enter: sweatshop labor. Yes, even the mention of it makes us cringe because it is an inconvenient truth that many of us would prefer to not think about. And don’t get me wrong … I love, love, love cheap clothing. My eyes light up every time I see a sale. My heart skips a beat every time I open a 50% off store-wide sale email (… I’m not kidding). Being something of a fashionista at heart I lap up a good bargain like anyone else. In fact, for the longest time I’ve been the ideal consumer. Good little Miss Buyer!
But the reality is that the more conscious you become about your life choices and how they affect the world at large, the more you can’t deny the undeniable. The more you awaken out of the fog of your own illusions. The more you realize that you are as much a part of this system as anyone else. And you perpetuate it.
But it’s time to wake up now. Don’t click away from this page quite yet. Keep reading. Go on, I dare you.
What is Sweatshop Labor and Why Should Anyone Care?
A sweatshop is defined as an organizations that violates two or more labor laws, laws that pertain to wages, working conditions, working hours, safety and discipline. The workers who make most of our clothes are mostly women and sometimes children who live in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Here are 5 reasons to care:
#1 Inhumane Treatment
Workers are subjected to physical, emotional and even sexual abuse. In such a high pressure, high demand environment, workers are bullied, intimidated, called names, kicked, slapped, beaten, and sexually assaulted by their supervisors.
#2 Long Hours, Poor Wages
Wages are abysmally low. For example Mexican workers for the fashion brand Gap earn as little as 28 cents per hour, Bangladesh workers earn on average $0.13 an hour, Chinese workers earn about $0.44 an hour and Vietnamese workers earn about $0.26 an hour (source). Not only that, but workers often work long and exhausting hours between 40 to 70 hours a week, often even without pay to avoid getting fired.
#3 Toxic Environments
The buildings and environments that sweatshop laborers work in are often structurally unsound, cramped, poorly ventilated, and full of noxious chemicals from fashion manufacture. Take Rana Plaza, a garment factory, in Bangladesh for instance. Although it was reported to be structurally unsound by its workers, no precautions were taken. On April 24, 2013, the building collapsed, killing 1,100 Bangladeshi workers and leaving thousands injured.
#4 Voiceless and Invisible
Sweatshop workers literally have no voice. If they do try to form unions to improve their living standards, they are often beaten, abused or even killed. The threat of violence and losing their jobs or their lives scares them into silence leaving them helpless to improve their working conditions.
#5 Mass Pollution
Fast fashion is the #2 biggest polluter in the world, second only to oil. Producing clothing using genetically modified fibers (such as cotton), agricultural degradation thanks to pesticides, and water pollution thanks to the massive cocktail of chemicals used to churn out fabric, is raping the world and leading to a host of severe health problems. Genetic mutation, chronic illness and cancers are the result of our high and fast demand for clothing that can be worn and thrown away easily. This is not taking into account the massive greenhouse affect excessive fashion consumption and production is having on the world. And what about landfill? The average American generates 82 pounds of textile waster per year (that’s 11 million tons of textile waste in the U.S. alone).
Some People Believe Sweatshop Labor is Necessary …
Many people support sweatshop labor arguing that:
- Sweatshops provide the poor a better alternative to other jobs such as prostitution, illegal market stalls, farming or scavenging. Working in a factory also pays better (sometimes 3 to 7 times higher).
- Boycotting sweatshops will take away jobs from people who need them. People need to stop thinking from a developed country point of view and start thinking from a developing country point of view.
- Cheap prices help struggling families in the Western world buy clothes for their children.
But here are some thoughts:
- Sweatshops do indeed pay better than other alternatives in poor countries. However, this appears to be a justification or argument that sides with corporations which profit off modern slavery. Do these people deserve any less respect, dignity or quality of life than us? So long as human beings are treated as commodities, the wage gap and mass impoverishment will continue.
- Many brands such as PACT, People Tree, Mayamiko, Nomads and Elegantees outsource their clothing production to developing countries, creating much needed jobs among the poorest for fair wages and safe working conditions. Boycotting sweatshops is a personal decision that may or may not send a message to fashion brands. However, supporting fair trade brands creates a higher demand and more work opportunities in developing countries. Other alternatives we can take that work to provide better alternatives for poor workers include supporting organizations that fight to give a voice to sweatshop workers such as USAS, SweatFree Communities, and War on Want. As one author writes, “The problem is not with individual factories or evil managers. The problem is a global production system that drives contractors to cut costs, increase productivity, and meet shorter and shorter delivery times, all of which further squeeze workers.” Thus, another option is to stop buying in to a culture that gorges itself on fast, cheap and disposable fashion, and buy quality, long-term clothing instead. You can find more options here.
- It’s true, fair trade clothing does cost twice the price of sweatshop clothing. However, you don’t need to buy fair trade clothing to shop ethically. You can also choose to shop at second hand/thrift stores which are not only ethical, but ecologically friendly as well. In fact, I frequently find unworn clothing that still have price tags on!
We live in a culture that believes itself to be rich because it can buy more. We get drunk on the high of buying clothes we don’t need that end up in landfills we don’t even think about. We look for pleasure in disposable sweat-and-blood produced garments that can never quite fill the empty holes within us. Maybe it’s about time we explore why we feel so empty in the first place.
What is your opinion on sweatshop labor?