The Devil’s Bargain: Sweatshops and the American Scheme
By John W. Whitehead
“They hit you…They hit you in the head…To make you work faster.”
—Nicaraguan Factory Worker
The so-called season of giving is officially behind us. Even in these sluggish economic times, Americans still managed to spend more than $50 billion in gift-giving. Now that all the gifts have been opened, all that is left is for us to enjoy them.
Yet I can’t help but wonder whether our pleasure would be dimmed were we to truly understand what is involved in bringing these gifts—at the bargain prices Americans love—to our homes?
Writing for the Texas Observer, Josh Rosenblatt notes in “Buy Some Stuff, Enslave Somebody” that “the expanding global economy demands that corporations seek out the cheapest possible labor to maximize profit, and stimulate growth and innovation. With free trade has come an explosion of global inequality that has left more than 2.8 billion people living on less than $2 a day.”
This inequality makes it possible for Americans to buy more and more while paying less and less. But as the National Labor Committee (NLC), an organization that investigates and exposes human and labor rights abuses committed by U.S. companies producing goods in the developing world, points out, “The people who stitch together our jeans and assemble our CD-players are mostly young women in Central America, Mexico, Bangladesh, China and other poor nations, many working 12 to 14-hour days for pennies an hour.”
Some in the business world insist that the business sector’s efforts to tap into the vast pool of willing and cheap labor in poorer countries are all about free market economics. However, critics such as the NLC consider the resulting dehumanization of this new global workforce to be the overwhelming moral crisis of the 21st century.
Unfortunately, this remains a moral crisis largely ignored by the American people—except, of course, for the occasional media blitz when a celebrity is found to be peddling wares manufactured in sweatshop conditions. For instance, who could forget the media circus surrounding talk-show personality Kathie Lee Gifford’s tearful 1996 confession that her clothing line, which was being sold in Wal-Mart stores across America, was indeed being produced in Honduran sweatshops that employed young girls and pregnant women to sew garments for 20 hours per day in extreme heat for only 31 cents an hour?
Chain retailers like Wal-Mart that sell low-cost goods manufactured overseas by workers who are allegedly paid less than the minimum wage, forced to work long hours, not given overtime pay and even beaten in order to keep them working grueling shifts have become easy targets for human rights groups. The company that once urged consumers to “Buy American” is currently the largest importer of goods made in China, which is one of the world’s worst labor abusers. Yet Wal-Mart was not the first company to take advantage of cheap global labor in order to achieve a bigger bottom line, nor will it be the last to do so. Furthermore, mega-retailers are not solely to blame.
We, the American consumer, have perfected the art of indulgence and avoidance. As Rosenblatt observes, “We in the wealthy West, living and dining off the fruits of their labor, can honestly say we are unaware of the devil’s bargain we bought into. Or that if we do know, the problem is simply too great to comprehend and beyond our means to do anything about, save changing our lifestyles entirely. Best, in other words, not to think about it.”
However, we must think about it. And in thinking about it, at some point we must realize that there is a moral dimension to our buying habits. As long as we are willing to buy, buy, buy at lower and lower prices without a care for how those goods were produced or where they came from, corporations will continue to seek out cheap labor, which invariably goes hand in hand with inhumane working conditions.
Thus, change must start with you. For starters, you can check out the National Labor Committee’s website, http://www.nlcnet.org for a, list of companies with questionable ties to sweatshops and cheap labor. If you’re not willing to stop doing business with those companies, then you can at least urge them to change their practices.
Savitri Durkee and William Talen, leaders of the Church of Stop Shopping, star in a documentary making its way across the country, What Would Jesus Buy? They believe now is a good time to urge companies which have given into pressure on climate concerns by becoming more environmentally friendly to recognize human rights concerns by committing to carry goods manufactured in worker-protected environments.
You should also encourage your local church or synagogue to take a moral stand against sweatshop labor. Christ advocated for the poor and urged his followers to reach out to the less fortunate. Christian organizations that claim to emulate Christ should speak out against slave labor. If only large Christian ministries would take a stand and urge their parishioners to boycott large chains that foster inhumane labor practices and working conditions, it could go a long way toward changing conditions around the world.
Finally, the next time you head out the door in search of another great deal, remember that your bargain could be coming at someone else’s expense. For instance, here’s what a report on a Korean-owned factory had to say about its working conditions:
Toilets and canteens were unsanitary. Some managers screamed at workers or pressured those who complained to resign. And many women, who comprise 88% of the plant’s workers, said they were denied time off for doctors’ appointments. One pregnant worker who had a note from her doctor about a high-risk pregnancy was not allowed to leave until five hours after she complained of pain. She lost the baby.