Vision: Deadly Accidents, Inhumane Conditions -- Why We Must Fight to Stop Abuse of the World's Sweatshop Workers


A fire breaks out in a garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Fueled by mountains of fabric, the ninth and tenth floors of the building are quickly engulfed in flames, and hundreds of workers rush, panicked, toward the exits. But two of the six exit doors are locked, and all of the building's fire extinguishers are either missing or out of order. In the frenzy, many workers are trampled by their colleagues, while others leap out windows, seeing no other means of escape. In all, at least twenty-eight people die, many of them burned alive. Dozens more are injured.

The disaster is reminiscent of the infamous New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, when nearly 150 factory workers, most of them women, died as a result of locked exits and a lack of fire safety equipment.

But the above story did not occur in the early 20th century; it happened just two weeks ago at the That's It Sportswear Ltd. factory, which manufactures clothing for major American retailers like the Gap, H&M, Target, JC Penney, Walmart, Kohl's and Abercrombie & Fitch.

The incident serves as a gruesome reminder that conditions at sweatshops overseas have not improved as much as they should have over the past several decades. Much-publicized anti-sweatshop campaigns in the '90s raised public awareness of labor issues overseas and forced brands like Kathie Lee Gifford for Walmart and the Walt Disney Company to improve conditions at some plants. But the overall sweatshop landscape remains dismal.

Take Bangladesh, which is among the top-five exporters of apparel to the United States. The recent That's It Sportswear fire was actually the second major factory disaster in the country in 2010, and the two incidents were not flukes -- poor safety conditions that lead to suffering and death are all too common in Bangladesh. In one particularly deadly week in February 2006, hundreds of factory workers were killed in three separate fires in the country.

While facing these unsafe conditions, Bangladeshi garment workers earn an average of 10 to 14 cents per hour and toil away for 74 hours or more each week. Many of them are subjected to physical and verbal abuse at the hands of their employers and have restricted access to bathrooms and drinking water.

Why is the situation still so bad for Bangladeshi workers, despite the hard work of labor activists over the years?

The answer is complicated, and involves insufficient labor policies, half-assed corporate efforts to curb garment worker abuse and an entrenched culture of poverty.

One factor that doesn't help is the recently en vogue argument that sweatshops are actually good for the world's poorest people. Here's Nicholas Kristof making that case in a 2009 New York Times column:

[W]hile it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough....

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty.

Kristof and others in the pro-sweatshop camp are obsessed with the argument that a sweatshop job is better than many other jobs available in the developing world -- pulling a rickshaw, for instance -- or having no job at all.

While that may be true, the mind frame sets an awfully low bar for what we should expect from employers. For another thing, it completely misses the point of the anti-sweatshop movement, which is by and large not focused on closing sweatshops, but rather improving conditions for the world's factory workers. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) lays out that agenda on its SweatFree Communities website:

We are not demanding that sweatshops close down. Workers in sweatshops want jobs. The last thing they want is for the factory to close and workers to be laid off. But employers owe workers a decent job; they must respect labor laws in their factories, pay a living wage, and treat workers with dignity. Workers’ goal and our goal is to improve working conditions, not shut down bad factories.

Many large companies cut and run from factories when they discover serious worker rights violations. Our message to these companies is that they should stay and help improve conditions because they share responsibility for abusive conditions. We should ask the companies what the workers will do when they pull orders from a factory.

The sweatshop problem remains huge. According to the ILRF, the majority of clothing entering the world's "export stream" today is made in places with sub-standard labor practices, in part because economic forces work against fair labor practices in innumerable ways.

Human rights abuse in the global apparel industry is not an aberration, but the logical result of trade rules and industry relations that reward low wages and worker exploitation, and penalize decency and fairness in the workplace. As a result, sweatshops with their poverty wages, forced overtime, and dangerous working conditions are the norm for tens of millions of workers in the global apparel industry where contract shops compete relentlessly for customers by cutting costs and pressuring workers to work harder for less.

This is daunting stuff. But the battle isn't unwinnable. Groups like ILRF and the National Labor Committee are working hard to make global trade rules more pro-labor, promote ethical consumerism and put pressure on companies that engage or are complicit in worker abuse.

No one said achieving these goals would be easy -- and clearly they aren't, or else companies would have stopped taking advantage of workers in the developing world decades ago.  But workers' rights are human rights, and the global community should fight human rights violations whenever and wherever they occur. Period.

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