By Tom Beutel
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49 (NIV)
“Sun drenched.” Sounds good, especially on a cold, gray, wintry day, or as a description of a juicy, plump tomato. But not if you are a worker in an Indonesian garment factory!
In this practice [sun drenching], the supervisors will find an employee who is working too slow on the production line, pull them out of line and have them stand under the hot sun for hours. The Maneater, April 25, 2013.
The fact that most clothing made for retailers in the US and Europe is made in sweatshops, under harsh working conditions, with low pay is not news. But, the latest tragic story of the factory collapse in Bangladesh this week forces this shameful fact to the forefront again.
On April 24, 2013 over 200 people died when a factory in Rana Plaza in a suburb of Savar, Bangladesh housing a number of garment making companies collapsed. Officials had ordered the building to be evacuated the day before when structural cracks were discovered, but employers ignored the orders.
Just five months earlier, on November 24, 2012 fire destroyed the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh, killing 112. The factory made clothing for global retailers including Wal-Mart and Sears. Workers on some floors were ordered to ignore the fire alarm and keep working.
Like the Boston marathon bombing, the Newtown school shooting, and other dramatic tragedies, the fatal fire and collapse of the garment factories thrust the reality of suffering and violence into our awareness in a way that is difficult to ignore.
However, unless we actually do something about these problems, including choosing to change the ways in which we live, the result will be that we will ignore them. We will be like the people of Sodom, who, according to the prophet Ezekiel, were “arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned.”
There are three things we can do: become informed, advocate, and change our own lifestyles.
There is a wealth of information available about sweatshops, particularly in the clothing industry. Here are just a few links:
- Global Exchange: Sweatfree FAQs an excellent summary of what a sweatshop is and sweatshop working conditions.
- Green America: Sweatshops Resources and action steps with free downloadable pdf Guide to Ending Sweatshops.
- DoSomething.org: Another excellent summary of the relevant issues.
- YouTube: “Nike Sweatshops: Behind the Swoosh”. 20 minute video featuring Mike Keady, former professional soccer player and coach at St. John’s University, founder and “captain” of Team Sweat.
Efforts to inform others about the problem of sweatshops in the clothing industry can be as simple as organizing a viewing and discussion of the video “Behind the Swoosh” or a study of Green America’s Guide to Ending Sweatshops in a Sunday School class, special church program, community group, or even a small gathering in your home.
Also, you can donate or subscribe to updates to the following organizations that focus on sweatshops:
Finally, in a capitalistic system, demand drives supply (at least in theory). By buying clothing through conventional retailers and particularly by seeking to find the lowest priced items, we contribute to the problem. Retailers want our business and they know that to get it they must keep their prices low. This means that their suppliers must keep their prices low as well. If we are willing to pay higher prices we can possibly encourage businesses to contribute to better pay and working conditions for workers.
Because the cost of labor, basically pay and health care, is such a small part of the total cost of a finished item, employers could increase labor cost by 50% and only raise the cost to consumers about 3%. (http://www.crossing-borders-fair-trade.com/sweatshops.html ) Surely, this would not be a hardship for us, but it would make a huge difference to workers.
We can also find fair trade sources for clothing. Here are links to a few sources:
- American Apparel: US store that does not use sweatshops.
- Autonomie Project: Organic, sweatshop-free goods.
I’m sure you can find others. In any case, it is important that we each recognize that there is a significant problem and do what we can to help solve it, whether through donations to advocacy groups, advocating ourselves, or making lifestyle changes.
A final thought (or two). If buying fair trade clothing is something you choose to do, it is likely that it will cost more. This is part of the cost of making life more fair for those suffering from poor pay and working conditions. On a practical note, we don’t have to replace our entire wardrobe, certainly not all at once. Set a goal to buy a certain portion of your clothing as fair trade. Whatever we can do will be a step in the right direction.