Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Feature Article - The Call to Boycott: Who is it really hurting?

The call to Boycott : Who is it really hurting?

With the help of the ever improving state of technology, society’s exposure to the good and bad of the world is at an all time high. Specifically, when it comes to the fashion industry consumers are more aware than ever of the appalling work conditions in which our mass fashion is made. It’s gotten to the point where companies can no longer hide the truth about their outsourcing to 3rd world countries, and society can no longer turn a blind eye to the unsafe work environments, small wages, use of child labour, and general treatment of the people that are responsible for making the cheap clothes on our backs.

According to an article by Mark Mackinnon and Marina Strauss in the Globe and Mail, much of our clothing in the western world starts out in the cotton fields of South and Central China. Recently, garment production has started to move to even cheaper countries like Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and the cheapest of all, Bangladesh. It is not uncommon for workers to be in a hot factory for up to 14 hours a day, and to be compensated as little as $38 a month. Worst of all is the fact that most of these workers are as young as 8 years old and more often than not, the building in which they work in is nowhere near being safe enough to hold such a production. According to “Spinning Tragedy: The cost of a T-shirt”, an article in the Globe and Mail, often times entrepreneurs will purchase a low-rise shopping center and then start building factories on top. The problem here is that the buildings were never meant to hold such weight, and eventually the foundation will begin to crumble. This scene is all too familiar with the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, that resulted in 1,129 lives lost and can be blamed on a massive lack of responsibility by the factory owners, and the companies using the facilities to produce their garments.

While reading up on this topic I started to notice a trend of “boycotting”. It seemed everywhere I looked the answer to this problem was a boycott. This was the immediate response to Joe Fresh after the factory collapse, and it is usually a common thread among the more conscious consumers throughout the western world. The idea was that if you boycott the companies that employ cheap labour, child labour, and promote unsafe work environments, then these companies will be forced out of business, and the problem goes away. While they may have the right intention, the consequence of these actions is much more complicated than it would seem. I’ll be honest, up until recently I was one of these “boycotters” and I thought it was a logical way to make a difference, and it was something I as a consumer had control over. It wasn’t until I read an article in the Toronto Star recently, that I started to question whether a boycott was really helping anyone.

The article titled “I got hired at a Bangladesh sweatshop. Meet my 9 year old boss”, was about the life of a young girl working in a sewing factory. It outlined what her average day was like. The long hours, the short and infrequent breaks, the heat and general working conditions of the factory, and the small wage she brought home. While none of this was a surprise to me, the young girls’ attitude about her job, was. To this 9 year old, her employment and small income was helping her family, it was teaching her valuable skills, and it was giving her hope for the future. Compared to all the 9 year olds I know, I would have to say this is a pretty profound attitude to have in such conditions.  

After reading this I started to think, what would happen if companies like Joe Fresh were to go out of business? What would happen to this young girl, and the thousands of others that work in the same conditions and face the same circumstances? All along I had thought about how awful the situation was, and how so many people were being exploited but I never thought about what this job meant to the person doing it, even in spite of the conditions. What if the western world became so adamant about putting a stop to cheap labour, that companies stopped looking to manufacture goods in these 3rd world countries all together? While trying to stop the exploitation of thousands of people, would we also be taking away their livelihood?

I started to realize that this topic isn’t as black and white as I had originally thought and looked into it further. Another Toronto Star article talks about how it would actually have more negative than positive effects if child labour in the apparel industry was to be banned. According to the author of “Banning child work a dangerous move”, if these child labourers were to lose their job, they would likely end up in a more dangerous work environment, or be forced into prostitution.  It seems strange that while many people think they are helping the situation by boycotting and pushing for cheap labour, and child labour bans, they’re actually forcing people, and children in particular, into worse circumstances then they’re already in.

What it comes down to is rather than boycotting companies, the focus should be about changing the standards of the industry. While I don’t condone the current state in which these people work, as small as their wages may be they do depend on this income to support their families. So instead, lets push towards fair wages and safe work environments. Lets’ push for proper training, shorter shifts, and less straining work for children. It’s about significantly raising standards without negatively affecting the lives that depend on these jobs and to ultimately find a balance of gradual and persistent change for the better.

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