Everyone loves a bargain, and we students are certainly no exception. However, this spring when you set out in search of the perfect crop top or printed leggings at Forever 21, I urge you to be mindful of the true cost of buying low-priced clothing and accessories. Most of the clothing worn in North America is made by underpaid workers in China. This shouldn't come as a surprise, but it begs the question: are we taking advantage of these poor Chinese workers? Or are we simply supporting their developing economy?
Well, picture yourself as a young woman under the age of 25 (maybe you already are). Now, imagine you’re living in near Hong Kong, China. You are extremely eager to earn money right now as these are your few “freedom” years before marriage. You come across a job that offers low taxes and low rent. This sounds great to anyone, and in fact this is why the garment industry’s labour force increased from 30, 000 to 4.3 million within the past two decades.
But what’s the catch? These young female workers in China often slave away for twelve hours a day, being paid on a piece-rate basis. This means that rather than being paid by the hour, like here in Canada, workers must produce a certain amount each day to reach their desired wages. This is especially trying when in some situations each garment they produce earns 12 cents. Some added perspective: it would take about 67 jeans an hour to earn $8 minimum wage. This is why companies can afford to sell such cheap clothes; and why we have the luxury of building almost disposable wardrobes. But according to labor expert Robert Ross of Clark University, "nobody in the world is making a living if a retailer is selling $10 jeans."
In addition, cheap clothing retailers such as Forever 21 have been linked to child labour and “prison” labour charges. While most young women in North America are in high school or college, these young women in China are doing strenuous physical labour under strict management. Only to go home each day to their tiny, overcrowded, unventilated dormitories which are strictly managed by the employers.
To make matters worse, management takes advantage of the workers who don’t know their rights. Some employees work overtime hours without proper overtime pay. Canadian international buyers aren’t any help, as they don’t apply the same codes of conduct to worker conditions there as they would for employees here.
If these women (and girls) were paid better they wouldn’t have to work such long hours. They would be able to afford better housing and could spend more time with their families, doing the things they want to do in these precious few youthful years.
Inadequate working conditions aside, the trade deficit between the U.S. and China is currently over $230 billion per year. It would make more sense for us to buy from developed nations like countries in Europe or Asia who actually buy North American products (cars, etc.) This way our dollars will return to us. Another resolution is for Chinese leaders to create more ways to have citizens spend more of their incomes and save less. This will help grow their domestic demand and have the country rely less on exports.
Buying overseas can also have a small negative impact on our economy. With more products being made overseas, we lose the ability to make them in North America. Trade through globalization is good, but we should retain the ability to manufacture significant goods. Notmadeinchinalife.com states, “We can’t even make a flat-screen in North America!”
However, buying from China does have some benefits. In doing so, we are supporting their developing economy allowing China to maintain its rapid growth in the coming decade. Sales are expected to triple by the end of 2020. With a rise in sales, we can expect a rise in wages, allowing for less demand for such harsh jobs.
In addition, as the population ages, low wages will gradually become unappealing and cause a slight decline in low wage positions as younger generations are less willing to take such positions.
Although China’s labour cost will likely never catch up U.S. and European countries any time soon, an increase in labour cost is definite. However, will it be enough to justify such inhumane working conditions? I don’t think so.
In conclusion, I hope that next time you are shopping at Forever 21, or a similar store, and you find a “great deal” you will contemplate if that $3 shirt is really worth the millions of workers subjected to such cruel working conditions.