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The Unnecessary Hazards of Clothing Production


Terry Allen has a useful overview of the unnecessary health risks of clothing production experienced by largely female workforces in the developing world:

These expendable workers, mostly young women, cycle out when they become too infirm or, like Willi, land other jobs. Most of the health threats affect only workers, but some travel with the garments as they are exported, largely to the United States, Canada and Europe. Clothing and bedding that boasts it is “easy care,” “permanent press,” “stain resistant” or “wrinkle free” may have been treated with formaldehyde, which is embedded in the fabric. A 2010 U.S. government report found unacceptably high formaldehyde levels in clothing manufactured in Bahrain, India, China, Pakistan, Thailand and Indonesia. Samples from dozens of other countries contained “acceptable” levels of formaldehyde. In the United States, the toxin is not regulated in clothing, and “acceptable” is a fungible construct, especially when it comes to exposing infants and toddlers. Consumers who use formaldehyde-laced fabric can experience skin, eye and nose irritation and allergies.

Inhaled formaldehyde is more lethal. A known carcinogen, it is implicated in leukemia and multiple myeloma. The danger is exacerbated by dust, prolonged exposure, close quarters, humidity and heat—the very conditions that define sweatshops. Some major-brand clothing and shoes contain the toxin nonylphenol, “a persistent chemical with hormone-disrupting properties that builds up in the food chain” and is hazardous even at very low levels, Greenpeace warns. Again, workers sustain the greatest exposure.

The garment industry’s tangle of contractors, sub-contractors and sub-sub-contractors allows manufacturers and sellers to plead ignorance. When news broke that its Faded Glory brand had been manufactured in the Tazreen factory, Wal-Mart claimed it wasn’t in control of its supply line. But it and the other corporations that produced goods there—Disney, Sears and Sean Combs’ Enyce label—are quite capable of tracking the sources of their products when it’s in their interest to do so.

With China’s wages surging, and even India’s at double Bangladesh’s, Dhaka is not motivated to crack down—even though implementing safety standards would add only 10 cents to the cost of a T-shirt, the Worker Rights Consortium estimates.

A prominent display of Faded Glory brand garments at my local Wal-Mart sparked an urge to buy one, douse it with lighter fluid and set it ablaze in the parking lot—in memory of the millions of poisoned, underpaid and flammable workers who pay a high price so we can stuff our closets with cheap clothes.

A couple of things.

First, this is a story with a long history. Capitalists have sought from the first days of industrializing to maximize profits in the clothing industry by using young, exploitable female labor. Forget all the garbage said by capitalists from the Lowell factories in the 1820s to maquiladora managers today about women having more nimble fingers, this is an excuse to gender the work female in order to pay them less.

Second, that this labor still exists is offensive. Health protections for industrial labor are at least a century old and most of them don’t cost that much. Doesn’t matter though. That extra 10 cents for a shirt, well that’s violating freedom! Or something. The opposition to implementing safety, health, and environmental standards, as well as paying decent wages, isn’t strictly economic–it’s an objection in principle to having to invest one cent more into production than absolutely necessary. Some may celebrate this as freedom. Those people don’t work in these conditions.

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  • Maybe a week working in one of those factories would make McMegan less of an idiot.

    • Murc

      Fun fact: I live up in Rochester, and our local conservative radio blowhard is Bob Lonsberry. About fourteen years ago, before he swung way hard right in order to keep playing to the rubes, he agreed, rather foolishly, to spend a week working in retail.

      Came back on the air, mumbled an apology about some of the shit he’d said about the working class, and has been curiously and completely silent about labor issues of any sort ever since.

      • Adara

        I love that! Surprised the guy even agreed to it.

        • Murc

          Lonsberry today is your standard Rush-wannabe, but back in the 90s he actually believed in what he was saying. He agreed to it because he genuinely believed people in low-status working class jobs like retail were lazy, surly, dumb, and generally incompetent, and he could get out there and show them how it was done, because he was an intelligent go-getter. Because that’s how it works, right? The poors are only that way because they WANT to be.

          Then he spent a week trying to do it himself.

          I do kind of sort of respect that he was willing to put his money where his mouth was, even if nothing ever came of it.

      • Amazing how that works.

  • J R in W. Va.

    I’m sure many factories all over the world are poisoning the workers, and often people in the neighborhoods around the plants where the fumes from the plant processes blow into the offices, nurseries and bedrooms for miles around.

    Think of the folks who live in Beaumont, Texas, or southeast of Houston near the refineries and chemical plants. Whenever I visited family in Houston there was TV News helicopter video of flaming units at the refineries, parts obviously missing from the explosion or fire.

    Even if you had good environmental standards for normal operation, once the plant blows up, no one knows what kind of substances, exactly, will be created and sprayed around the countryside.

    I’ve worked in shipyards and factories a little, and learned fairly early that hard physical work is one pretty good thing and being paid to expose yourself to seriously dangerous chemicals for a whole career… no, thanks. A union can be better than nothing, if they don’t kiss the bosses but-, and then rain on safety standards. The OSHA and EPA folks are very much after the fact for the most part.

    People who have been damaged physically or mentally for the rest of their life have to prove when they were exposed to what, how much for how long, and that the quantities involved could cause the negative effects of the condition.

    • Parolles

      I’m sure many factories all over the world are poisoning the workers

      Indeed, we pay blood money for most imports: http://extras.sltrib.com/china/

  • Richard Hershberger

    “Samples from dozens of other countries contained “acceptable” levels of formaldehyde. In the United States, the toxin is not regulated in clothing, and “acceptable” is a fungible construct, especially when it comes to exposing infants and toddlers.”

    I don’t mean this to be merely a cheap language snark, but I honestly don’t know what Allen means by “fungible” here. It seems quite unrelated to the word’s ordinary meaning.

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