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Labor Conditions and Your Clothing

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Sweat-shop-takepart.com_

As we all know, most of our clothing is now made in Asian sweatshops. The clothing companies intentionally know as little as possible about the conditions of production. They contract it out and then close their eyes. They refuse all responsibility for what happens so long as the clothes come in at price and on time. Otherwise, they don’t want to know. They don’t want you to know either, which is part of the reason why they claim that not only don’t they know, but they can’t really do much about it. This is of course a lie. In any case, what are the conditions of production in Indian sweatshops?

Among the worst of the findings in the report was that some Bengaluru factories kept women (the majority of garment workers) in hostels monitored by male security guards and severely restricted their movements. Most were allowed to leave for only two hours a week, usually on Sunday to buy groceries and other items, and only after registering with a guard. The rest of the time, women were expected to travel only to and from work, and guards recorded when they arrived at and left the hostels.

The ICN, it’s worth noting, didn’t record these practices at the two factories known to produce for H&M and C&A, though the C&A factory did employ guards. The H&M factory hostel only housed men, and they were allowed out until 11pm.

Workers could use phones to talk with friends and family, but the report points out that they had little to no opportunity to interact with labor advocates, making them more vulnerable to abuses. Indeed, some hostels segregated migrants by region, paying certain groups less. All made at least the minimum wage, though Bengaluru’s garment industry has previously been singled out for its unfairly low wages.

Many of the workers were also afraid of punishment. If a woman returned late, for instance, she could be made to wait outside the gate for hours until a guard let her in.

The report found that the hostels generally provide the bare minimum. At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.” Workers also had to pay to stay there.

As I have documented over the years here and in Out of Sight (recently named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book of 2015–yay!), these conditions are basically the same in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. These are the clothes you are wearing today or yesterday or tomorrow. The question is what you are going to do about it? When are we going to start demanding that our politicians make these conditions a priority? When are we even going to begin questioning them about the basics? Does even Bernie Sanders have a meaningful position on global labor exploitation by American companies? If so, I haven’t heard it. We have to publicize these conditions and demand that our clothes are made in humane conditions. We have to demand that our fish is not produced by slaves. We have to at least publicly criticize the Obama administration when it reclassifies Malaysia’s human rights record just after human trafficking camps have been discovered so that it can include the nation in the TPP.

Right now, we are failing at all of this.

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  • DrDick

    And meanwhile, “free trade” deals like the TPP, make it ever more difficult to remedy these situations.

    • sapient

      No, it makes it easier. You’re right when you say in a different comment that this isn’t an either/or scenario. It’s important to establish an interdependent economy, then use our leverage to improve standards.

      • Linnaeus

        Aye, there’s the rub.

      • DrDick

        The people with the leverage have no desire to improve anything except their bottom line. TPP and related deals actually prevent governments from effectively regulating their activities.

        • sapient

          Who are “the people with the leverage”? That could be us if we took democracy seriously. Unfortunately, those of us who care about this don’t seem to vote for our Legislative branch. [I do, but “progressives” as a voting block don’t.]

          • In this case, those of us who care don’t actually prioritize foreign workers in any concrete way at all, such as even asking a politician to take a position on it.

            • sapient

              Some of us, who have actually met some foreign workers, understand that although their lot in life needs improvement it is much, much better than it was before they could get a job in a factory. I have a feeling that Democratic politicians know there’s a problem here.

              • Bill Murray

                that’s why they have the suicide nets

              • That’s cute that you claim to have met “some foreign workers.” I don’t know what “some foreign workers” mean, but I have also met plenty of foreign workers. And if you are claiming to have met this type of worker discussed in this post, it’s almost certainly a lie.

                • sapient

                  I have met some foreign workers. I don’t know whether they are the very people featured in the article you cite. In the article is this:

                  At a hostel run by Arvind, which supplies H&M, men slept on three-tier bunk beds in large, divided halls. There are no kitchens, the water supply is irregular, and one bathroom serves 12 to 14 people. “Nothing is good,” one Arvind worker said. “But we are staying here because we have to live and there is no other way.”

                  I have certainly met people who have been employed in places where they slept in close quarters with other people. But as the guy stated, they are staying there because they have to live and there is no other way.

                  I don’t see you providing them with another way, Erik. What are you suggesting as their other way?

                • DrDick

                  I don’t see you providing them with another way, Erik. What are you suggesting as their other way?

                  I am sure that you would have said the same about the slaves here.

                • sapient

                  Dr Dick, you are appropriately named.

                  I am all in favor of improving the circumstances of workers. I find it a little bit disingenuous that Erik assumes that protectionism will help these workers. That is his answer, and it won’t help their circumstances.

                • I find it a little bit disingenuous that Erik assumes that protectionism will help these workers. That is his answer, and it won’t help their circumstances.

                  No, it’s not my answer. Actually reading and understanding my book would help you. I have an entire book on finding those workers another way. It’s only $17 on Amazon.

                • sapient

                  For example, the Chinese economy is suffering, and factory workers are without jobs. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/business/international/zombie-factories-stalk-the-sputtering-chinese-economy.html

                  Nice, huh? Dr. Dick, you probably would have said the same about the slaves. Let them subsist.

          • Bill Murray

            I do, but “progressives” as a voting block don’t.

            is there any evidence for this statement? I would say young people and not very attached to the political process people don’t vote in off-Presidential elections. While these certainly have “progressive” people in them, it’s far from clear that they are particularly progressive

            • sapient

              Not sure what evidence you need that the presidential elections turn out people who vote for more leftists candidates than mid-terms. And, of course, the evidence that I do is that I do.

  • Crusty

    Following up on a discussion from yesterday, am I supposed to care about the plight of these workers more, less, or the same as that of American workers? What if the result is that an angry, white, out of work former American factory worker will no longer be able to afford clothing?

    • All workers deserve the right to live in dignity.

      • DrDick

        Right. This is not an either/or scenario.

        • Crusty

          Sure, when you put it that way. But if I put it this way- I don’t care prioritize the suffering of the American worker anymore than the suffering of a Bangladeshi worker that I will never meet or see, plenty of people will chime in to tell my I’m wrong and that I owe something greater to the Americans. And if I choose to donate to something like fighting AIDS in Africa, over some local cause, then I’ve done something wrong, because in the case of my dollar, well, they are finite and it is an either/or scenario.

          • leftwingfox

            Distractivism, in other words.

            • Crusty

              What does that mean?

              • joe from Lowell

                I think he’s naming the experience you just described, the “chiming in.”

              • leftwingfox

                It’s the tactic of saying “What about Y” when someone wants to deal with problem X. Sometimes that’s caused by activists who are upset that other people don’t share their priorities, but often it’s a tactic used to minimize, deflect or derail conversation in favour of doing nothing.

                Holding domestic importers directly responsible for the actions of subcontractors would help workers in other nations without doign much to afffect the domestic market one way or another.

                I personally believe in a labor-equalization tarriff on imported goods; adding a tarriff equal to the difference between the factory wages and the federal minimum wage of the importing country. That would reduce the economic pressure for the race to the bottom, and allow for increased domestic competition, while still encouraging trade from other nations.

    • AdamPShort

      The plight of these workers worsens the plight of American workers. It is more difficult for people in developed countries to get work in the private sector when workers in other countries can be forced to do similar work for nothing.

      • Crusty

        Surely, their plight is bad enough without its effect on my compatriots, right?

        • Linnaeus

          Sure, but I don’t see why these connections can’t be made or why they can’t be discussed.

          • Crusty

            Sure they can be discussed.

            But I’m asking why, as is frequently asserted on this forum, why anybody has a greater obligation to the citizens of their own country than to people who may be suffering anywhere? Yesterday, Erik told me something about if we don’t help the angry, white, working class, they might vote for Donald Trump or something like that.

            • Linnaeus

              But I’m asking why, as is frequently asserted on this forum, why anybody has a greater obligation to the citizens of their own country than to people who may be suffering anywhere?

              I tend to think of it in terms of efficacy rather than obligation. There’s a lot more that I can do to affect the conditions of people who live closer to me, who live under the same political system as me, etc. This ability, for what it’s worth, is attenuated as people are farther from me geographically, socially, politically, etc. That doesn’t mean that I don’t care about people who are far away from me, that there’s nothing I can do to help, or that I think that other people shouldn’t try to help them. It’s a matter of assessing one’s resources (time, money, etc.) and trying to allocate those to the best of one’s ability in accordance with one’s values.

        • cpinva

          their plight doesn’t happen in a vacuum, what affects them ultimately affects everyone else.

    • Bill Murray

      how do you care relative to the right of the already extremely wealthy to get even more wealthy? To me, that is where the divider should be.

      • sapient

        I don’t care who’s wealthy. I only care that struggling people be made more comfortable (more wealthy). People who are extremely wealthy can remain so as long as 1) other people are comfortable, and 2) there are restrictions on the effect of wealth on politics. The second one is harder than the first.

        • People who are extremely wealthy can remain so as long as 1) other people are comfortable, and 2) there are restrictions on the effect of wealth on politics. The second one is harder than the first.

          Ha ha, this is so wrong that it is crazy. The second is relatively easily accomplished.

          • sapient

            Really? Citizens United.

            • Yeah, somehow I remember the century before Citizens United when we did have reasonable restrictions on political speech. I know it was such a long time ago so I can’t blame you for not remembering. Somehow I don’t think poverty was solved in that century.

              • sapient

                I’m not sure what this conversation is about. I’m older than you are and have been politically active for a long time, and we know very well that economic disparity is growing and that the most wealthy (see the recent Jane Mayer book) have distorted the political landscape.

                I bought your book, Eric (sorry, Erik), and although I’m not finished with it, I do note that even at the outset you treat “globalization” as a demon (although you like Vietnamese food – good for you). The fact is, we live in an era where “globalization” is inevitable. It’s the strength of our trade deals, and the ongoing work that we do in enforcing environmental standards and improving worker rights that makes a difference. We’ve lost the “making shoes at home” battle. I actually tried to make some artisan products (Etsy-like things) and realized how hugely ridiculous that is as a source of income.

                Recently I was in Asia (China, Vietnam, Korea), and feel like the people that I met (not wealthy capitalists) are hugely optimistic. Yes, there are sweatshops and abuses. This is not “our fault” although I hope we can help to mitigate it with our power through trade. Vietnam is incredibly proud of its manufacturing. Yes, we need to champion its workers. That happens through trade deals like TPP.

                • Linnaeus

                  We’ve lost the “making shoes at home” battle.

                  Yes, “we” did, but some folks have borne the brunt of that loss more than others have.

                  Yes, there are sweatshops and abuses. This is not “our fault” although I hope we can help to mitigate it with our power through trade.

                  The thing is, poor working conditions and abuses are endemic to the process. Some of the most ardent advocates of the current global trade regime have argued that we need to tolerate poor working conditions because without such toleration, people wouldn’t have jobs.

                  Which, in my mind, raises an interesting question. If the most recent iteration of globalization does in fact require that we accept unsafe or unhealthy working conditions for a great many, then to what extent can we expect this very same process to improve working conditions if doing so hinders globalization? My own sense is that this conundrum gets addressed for the most part by moving the locus of poor working conditions elsewhere.

                  That happens through trade deals like TPP.

                  It all comes down to enforcement. To be honest, I’m skeptical that there will be meaningful enforcement under the TPP. I could be wrong on this and I hope I am; regardless, the labor situation for member parties to the TPP needs to be watched closely.

  • leftwingfox

    Blargh.

    I used to buy my clothes at Mark’s Work Wearhouse, where the house brand of Jeans was cheap and still made in Canada. That’s not the case anymore. Just bought a pair of shirts there thinking “Well, at least India might have slightly higher standards of labor than Bangladesh.”

    Nope.

    • cpinva

      why would it? they still have to somehow make a profit, so they’re going to cut as many corners as they can: pay labor a pittance; reduce amount of material; reduce the number of stitches. you’re lucky if the shirt doesn’t fall apart the first time you wash it.

      • The Temporary Name

        Both places are so phenomenally corrupt it’s hard to imagine getting any meaningful standards in place.

      • leftwingfox

        And yet they have ridiculous profit margins already baked in. Back in 2005 I could buy Made in Canada jeans for $25, or Made in Honduras jeans for $70. The only difference was that the $70 version had the GAP brand on it.

  • joe from Lowell

    You’re right, Erik.

    You rarely even see it as the second half of “I don’t want American workers to be undercutby inhumane treatment and poverty wages from overseas factories producing for American consumers.

  • buermann

    “Does even Bernie Sanders have a meaningful position on global labor exploitation by American companies? If so, I haven’t heard it.”

    http://www.wcax.com/story/7289066/sanders-pushing-sweatshop-labor-bill
    http://www.democracynow.org/2005/7/1/rep_bernie_sanders_cafta_is_a
    http://www.sanders.senate.gov/download/050615-scan/?inline=file

    He talks a pretty nationalistic game about it: I’d like to see the concerns about union rights abroad and cleaning up the supply chain and so on come first instead of all the durkur duur stuff.

    Does anybody else?

  • What’s the role of consumer choice and action here?

    I recall, Erik, that you are generally a bit negative about such efforts. But it seems to me that sweatshop free or union label campaigns can be effective organising tools as well as means of (very limited) action.

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