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Are Your Clothes Made in a Sweatshop?

Sadly, the answer is probably yes.


It’s been 16 years since  Charles Kernaghan made Kathie Lee Gifford cry on national television, revealing that her Wal-Mart-sold clothing line was produced by Honduran children working 20-hour shifts. It was an essential moment in bringing labor conditions in the developing world — specifically in the garment industry — to the attention of the American public.

But not that much has changed. Looking back on the movement and its achievements in an interview, Kernaghan sounds defeated, even as he reels off the list of horrific factories exposed by his  Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights.

Kernaghan’s gloomy mood stems from the report he is writing now on a recent trip to Northern Bengal, where the Institute secretly met with workers from the  Rosita and Megatex factories to follow up on a previous exposé. The two factories produce expensive sweaters for an array of European apparel companies, companies which assure their customers that the workers are guaranteed the core rights established by the International Labor Organization (ILO), including freedom of association and the elimination of child labor.

Well, that turns out not to exactly be the case. And it turns out that most Americans still likely know very little about the conditions under which the clothes they wear were produced.

“It was ridiculous. In fact it was one of the worst factories we’ve seen,” says Kernaghan. “There was child labor, people were being beaten, cheated of their wages — and wages were very, very low. Male supervisors would constantly press young women to have sex with them.”

The Institute followed every development: The presidents of the workers’ committee (not even a legally recognized union) were both threatened with assassination. There was every reason to take these murderous threats seriously: the Bangladeshi Export Processing Zone Authority, which runs the free trade zone where the factories are located, is run by former military operatives. Police stations are located right outside the factory, and police cars stud the surrounding blocks, but not for the protection of the employees. When workers demonstrated for their rights, hundreds were beaten by the police and then fired. The committee presidents at the time were beaten, tortured, fired and banned from coming anywhere near the factory.

Rosita is owned by a Chinese company, South Ocean, one of the largest knitwear manufacturers in the world. Kernaghan and his colleagues brought the workers to the Embassy of the Netherlands, where they met with representatives from a host of European nations. But what about the corporations that depended on the abusive factory?

“These corporations are not even embarrassed when you bring this up,” says Kernaghan. “We’ve got an international system that is never going to work until there are internationally recognized workers rights standards that become law. What are we going to do with Bangladesh, for example, when the government is dysfunctional. How can you have ethical trading with a country that has no rules? We do a lot of garment stuff and most of it is a disaster. I can’t imagine anything changing, but I do believe that the vast majority of people have a heart and a soul and would love to do the right thing. It’s just hard to figure out how to do that.”

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On average Americans buy 64 garments every year, the overwhelming majority made overseas. Multiple polls and studies have shown that consumers want to buy ethically made clothing. In a recent National Consumers League poll, 59 percent of respondents said it is “very important” that the products they purchase are not made in dangerous or unfair conditions, while 94 percent said that the way workers are treated is important to them. A 2006 study published in the American Sociological Association’s journal included multiple surveys that showed supermajorities of shoppers willing to pay anywhere from $1 to $5 more for garments made in humane conditions (the percent fell as theoretical prices rose).