Check the label on your t-shirt right now. It’s more likely than not that it was manufactured by people working under unfair wages and living conditions in a developing country.
But chances are, you already know this.
Every year or so, another large clothing company is exposed for unethical labor practices, and public outcry ensues.
There was the Nike fiasco that spanned the late ‘90s and early half of the ‘00s, when the athletic apparel retailer was exposed for outsourcing their manufacturing to factories in East Asian countries where workers—adults and children alike—were abused. Nike then became the first in its industry to publish a complete list of its contracted factories, and has continued to improve its public image by raising workers’ wage, minimum age, and working conditions.
Nike is far from being the only offender. In recent years, companies like Gap, Old Navy, Victoria’s, Secret, and H&M were exposed for similar violations.
Unfortunately, unfair labor practices don’t make for very glamorous news stories, and the issue never stays in the public eye for too long. We still have clothes to buy, after all.
There is also controversy over the legitimacy of claims against factories with poor working conditions. Some critics argue that the principle of comparative advantage validates companies’ decisions to outsource their manufacturing to countries that can make the products faster and cheaper than the company could in its own country.
Another claim is that because the poor conditions and low wages in developing countries are relatively better than what workers might usually be accustomed to, they are somehow justifiable.
Steven Spath, former executive director of the Foundation for Economic Education says, “It is true that the wages earned by workers in developing nations are outrageously low compared to American wages, and their working conditions go counter to sensibilities in the rich, industrialized West. However, I have seen how the foreign-based opportunities are normally better than the local alternatives.”
Groups like Clean Clothes, an advocacy group dedicated to improving conditions in the garment industry, find it more difficult than Spath to write human rights violations off as business smarts and a helping hand.
According to Clean Clothes, there are over 500,000 textile workers in Cambodia alone, many of whom are women. In addition to nominal wages, they face health issues, malnourishment, sexual harassment, hazardous work environments, forced overtime hours, and denial of trade union rights.
Last month, a Norwegian newspaper decided to try a different approach to raising public awareness about labor issues by bringing the glamour to the sweatshops, literally.
Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, sent three young fashion bloggers to live and work in a Cambodian factory for one month. The series, called Sweatshop: Deadly Fashion, showed what daily life is like for many textile workers.
The three bloggers, Anniken Jorgensen, Frida Ottesen, and Ludvig Hambro, arrive in Phnom Penh excited and carefree, but are soon forced to face the sobering reality of grueling workdays, poor conditions, little food, and very low wages. They live on approximately $3 per day, sleep on a hard floor, and spend up to 8 hours each day sewing tiny, seemingly endless stitches on garments that will be sold for more than their weekly salary.
“You think you know; you think you know it’s bad. But you don’t know how bad it is before you see it,” Hambro says as he becomes increasingly aware of the grim conditions.
“The truth is that we are rich because they’re poor,” he says in the final episode. “We are rich because it costs us 10 euros to buy a T-shirt [at] H&M. But somebody else has to starve for you to be able to buy it.”
In an industry where fashion comes fast, cheap, and often at the expense of another human’s well-being, one has to wonder if any of the big brands are actually doing it right.
American Apparel is one such brand that has been dedicated to producing clothing ethically and affordably in the U.S. While admittedly more expensive than brands like H&M and Forever 21, it has long maintained company standards of fair employment practices and benefits.
For those looking to shop ethically, Clean Clothes recommends doing a little extra research into your favorite retailers. While no single brand has the magic answer, some signs that they are working to improve workers’ rights include having a comprehensive code of conduct, credible stakeholder participation, and actively supporting freedom of association and collective bargaining.
No brand is perfect, and nobody’s closet comes without a cost, but we can all take steps to reduce the toll our shopping habits take on our fellow humans. Shop wisely, buy kindly.
Photos courtesy of Breitbart, Eco-chick, and Haaretz.