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Thinking Critically: Who’s Responsible for What Happens in Sweatshops & What Do We Do About It?

Written by Marsha Rakestraw | Published on May 29, 2013 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2013/05/29/thinking-critically-responsible-sweatshops-it/

women working in factory in Bangladesh

Image courtesy jajankie/Flickr via CC.

According to news reports, since 2005, nearly 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh have been “killed in factory fires and structure collapse.”

With the spate of recent tragedies, both companies and consumers are taking another look at the impact of their choices. Some companies, such as Disney, are taking their business elsewhere (See this recent New York Times debate about whether Disney did the right thing severing its ties with factories in Bangladesh.)

And some citizens are looking to thrift stores and other means to help keep their closets sweatshop-free.

In a recent commentary for Ethics Newsline, Cathy Bartach raises some valuable questions that can help us think more critically about “who bears the ethical responsibility for preventing future sweatshop catastrophes.” Some of the questions she asks include:

Are retailers at fault? Should they stop doing business in Bangladesh and other areas of the developing world that have poor track records on garment industry safety? Should they agree to greater government oversight of the working and safety conditions that would increase the risk of real penalties for them? Or can decisions to keep their doors open to the apparel industry factories — and to reject binding regulations — be seen as the ethical “right” choice …?

… Are consumers at fault? Does our insatiable demand for bargains make us complicit in sweatshop disasters? Should someone that buys Calvin Klein instead of Gap clothing be considered more ethical because the former has signed onto the Accord? Would someone who opted out of commercial clothing altogether, making their own clothes by hand or by a private designer, be considered the most ethical of all?

… Are governments to blame? If so, what level of government? Many reports noted that local officials called for the Raza Sana building to close the day before but to no avail. Where was the law enforcement? Who failed to stop the unauthorized additions of the top floors of the building?

As with most issues, the solutions aren’t that simple.

For example, if companies decide to take their business elsewhere, where does that leave all those workers? And where else would big companies go — who else could easily handle their product needs? (Bangladesh is the #2 garment producer behind China). Is it better to stay & try to improve things as an industry? Or leave and tell government officials the improvements that have to be made to reclaim your business? Or try to set up your own standards? All three of these strategies are being used in the wake of the latest tragedies in Bangladesh. And who is going to pay for all the safety improvements, better pay and working conditions for workers, and so on?

And what about our role as citizens who consume these goods? If we all start buying at thrift stores, who is buying the new clothes that eventually make their way there? What happens to the jobs of those people producing the new clothes? We have alternatives such as fair-trade products, but what about people who can’t afford them — what are their options? Does a boycott as an individual do any good (especially if we don’t tell companies we’re boycotting them)? What responsibility and power do we have to influence the policies and practices of companies that use these sweatshop factories?

The issue of sweatshops is often treated as an either/or black/white one. The gist of the response to concerns about sweatshops is usually that “A terrible job is better than no job.” But we can dig even deeper, looking for the solutions that do the most good and least harm for all.

For example, what if we purchased fewer clothes, but were willing to pay more for them, so that workers could earn a living wage and have safe, healthy working conditions? What if we took advantage of thrift stores and clothing swaps while also lobbying companies and governments to change their practices, and perhaps donating money to support fair trade and cooperative businesses in developing countries (as well as locally)?

As teachers and humane educators, we can bring these kinds of questions and ideas to our students for them to explore.

As concerned citizens, we can learn more about the issues, share what we’ve learned with others, and work individually and collectively to make choices that do more good and less harm, while also working to create better systems.

~ Marsha

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