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.