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Friday, July 15, 2005

Sweatshop Labor

The following post was started as a response to John at Locusts and Honey.

John is wondering about the alternative to supporting companies that use underpaid labor in dangerous or less than satisfactory environments. He concludes by saying,
" Sweatshop work looks horrible to American eyes, but it is obviously a good idea to the citizens of developing nations, as they would otherwise they wouldn't choose* to work there. The Sweatshop Stage of economic development is an ugly, but essential step on the road to progress.
If critics of sweatshop imports are serious about helping people in developing nations, they would buy their products, rather than boycott them.
*As to distinguish from literal slave-labor nations, such as China, where workers do not have a choice."

I think there are alternatives. Not overnight change, save the world alternatives, but still options to continuing to buy the majority of our products from WalMart, Nike and the like.

There are "green"companies whose intention is to set up safe work environments where persons are paid a living wage and produce marketable goods. Companies like Ten Thousand Villages, NoSweatApparrel, and others (see list at One alternative is to shop there whenever possible. When one can't, or it's more convenient not to, (and I'm just as indiscriminate as the next consumer; see previous post on Target) then at least we can let the more exploitive companies know how we feel about their labor practices.

It seems more hopeful and more just to support and expand these new and growing markets and work for change, even if it's incremental, than to keep on keeping on.

Coop Amercia provides some answers, much more succintly and articulatley than I could. See two of their responses below.

Q: But if the reality is that companies have to cut costs to stay competitive, aren't sweatshops inevitable?
A: No. Low prices are only one of many factors consumers take into account when they shop, and most consumers don't willingly purchase goods made in sweatshops or with child labor. Since 1995, three separate research organizations have conducted surveys on consumer attitudes toward purchasing products made under sweatshop conditions. The surveys consistently find that the average consumer would pay up to 28 percent more for an item if s/he knew it wasn't made in a sweatshop.

Furthermore, with staggering disparities between the pay rates of corporate executives and the pay rates of actual workers, there's no reason that the pursuit of low prices should demand rock-bottom wages for those least able to afford it. For example, while workers in Saipan sewing Levi's blue jeans were making just $3.05 per hour, Levi's CEO Philip Marineau saw his pay soar to $25.1 million (or $11,971 an hour), nearly 15 times what he earned in 2001, according to Sweatshop Watch. The money allocated for Marineau's raise could have accommodated a 50 percent pay increase for more than 7,500 minimum wage workers in Saipan, helping to lift whole communities out of poverty. Alternatively, such a large sum of money could have continued to pay the salaries to more than 600 of the Levi's workers recently laid off in San Antonio, and Levi's could have avoided shifting even more of its production overseas. Furthermore, even with the shift to cheaper overseas production, such savings at the corporate level do not get passed on to consumers. If corporations can afford such exorbitant compensation for their executives, they can afford to pay workers a living wage while remaining competitive in the marketplace.

Q: Isn't the low-wage employment offered by sweatshops better than not being employed at all? Don't sweatshops help poor people climb out of poverty?
A: No. Sweatshop workers and child laborers are trapped in a cycle of exploitation that rarely improves their economic situation. Since multinational corporations are constantly pressuring suppliers for cost-cutting measures, workers most often find conditions getting worse instead of better.
Consider the example cited in a 2003 National Labor Committee report on a Honduran worker sewing clothing for Wal-Mart at a rate of 43 cents an hour. After spending money on daily meals and transportation to work, the average worker is left with around 80 cents per day for rent, bills, childcare, school costs, medicines, emergencies, and other expenses. Not surprisingly, many workers are forced to take out loans at high interest rates and can't even think about saving money to improve their lives as they struggle to meet their daily needs.

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