Friday, May 3, 2013

The real cost of sweatshops

“Triangle Shirtwaist” evokes grainy images of the turn of the last century when New York City produced goods for the world in grimy, dingy sweatshops. That world significantly changed on Saturday, March 25, 1911, when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire resulted in the death of 136 people, mostly young women.
    In 1909, union agreements with clothing manufacturers had begun to improve conditions for 15,000 other sweatshop workers toiling long hours in terrible conditions for little pay. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest ladies-garment manufacturer in New York, had resisted all efforts to improve conditions for its 500 employees. The fire and its horrific images resulted in the passage of a large number of fire, safety and building codes and created stiff penalties for non-compliance in New York. Other cities soon followed.
    About a century later, on April 24, 2013, hundreds of sweatshop workers toiling long hours in terrible conditions for little pay died when the eight-story Rana Plaza factory collapsed. More than 300 died, but this time it happened in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
    Labor unions have been trying to address the hazardous working conditions and subsistence-level wages for which Bangladesh is notorious. Global retailers in the $1 trillion industry continue to resist calls for them to pay for more strict scrutiny of Bangladeshi factories.
    “The multinational companies … claim they have very good policies, they have their own code of conduct, they have their auditing and monitoring system,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation in Bangladesh, in a recent article from the Associated Press. “But yet these things keep happening.”
    In large part, they happen because the ultimate goal for all the players in this story—including consumers, but not the exploited workers—is producing things for the lowest possible price. By changing their expectations, consumers could be the driving force affecting overseas locations where fair labor practices are rarely considered.
    The process begins with buying products produced in countries with fair and safe labor practices, such as the U.S.A., Canada, or European countries. Consumer willingness to make buying decisions on something other than the lowest price would allow manufacturers in these countries, and their workers, to be competitive with the sweatshops. Global retailers would gain the leverage to force better working conditions and more effective regulation and enforcement.
    Prices would be higher, but probably not as high as the guilt we all bear if we continue to ignore the price paid by those sewing in Rana Plaza.

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