As we move forward in our careers as young entrepreneurs in the fashion industry we come to a roadblock of sorts and must choose the correct path. Much of our industry, if not most of it, are based on consumers purchasing cheap clothes and accessories from developing countries. We need to ask ourselves the questions of are we supporting a developing country by purchasing or are we taking advantage of underpaid workers. Is there an ethical line to be drawn? And even if we are being unethical, will supporting these developing countries economies have to be conducted in order for their survival? How can we change this or better the situation as we make our voices heard?
What are sweatshops?
Sweatshops are the factories where apparel companies such as Nike, H & M, Joe Fresh, The Gap and so on, make contracts with developing countries to produce their apparel at low prices. Cheap consumer goods are made in these sweatshops for other countries to purchase and sell on a global scale. These products are outsourced to developing countries because the labor is cheap. The conditions are so poor that no one should be working in them. This can be seen with the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013 and has grabbed the attention of everyone on a worldwide scale. In the case of Rana Plaza, the 8-story factory building collapsed and killed over 1000 workers.
Why do we support cheap clothing?
According to GOOD Magazine The Quarterly, we are addicted to cheap fashion. We want stuff for budget prices, and we don’t want to think about the conditions that our clothes are made in. The clothing that we as consumers purchase may not be made well, and yet we continually purchase it while those who are making it, is barley making enough to survive. We are taking advantage of cheap labor in this sense and turning a blind eye to the road it takes for the clothing to get to us. Consumers are ignoring the fact that cheap labor involves a sweatshop employee working for 10 hours a day, does menial, repetitive tasks, works in generally poor conditions and gets paid less than 5 dollars per day says cracked.com, an online humor magazine. Many of these workers are put at risk of harm through these long hours and horrible wages. According to the University of Edinburgh, from Just World Institute online blog, one way to describe this phenomenon is to say that workers are exploited: what they receive from employers does not constitute a fair exchange for their labour.
What’s the response to cheap labor?
If we as consumers are continually purchasing cheap clothing and exploiting workers in developing countries should we not see that this is a completely unethical situation? Should we not be looking to how we are getting cheap clothing, understanding exploitation and put an end to it all? The response to cheap labor and supporting exploitation is to refuse to buy clothes from those countries. In the case of the Rana Plaza collapse, we could refuse to buy clothes from them, or these apparel companies can refuse to get their garments made in Bangladesh. According to the University of Edinburgh, from the Just World Institute online blog, to avoid the wrong of exploitation altogether one must avoid buying the clothes. The alternative is to buy local or produce clothing locally. But the problem there is for local production costs to make the garments would sky rocket and so too would the retail price, which consumers would not be happy with.
Are we instead supporting a developing country? Can we have one without the other?
Even though we can see that there is exploitation and unfair wages, we must look at the bigger picture and understand that by outsourcing to developing countries we are providing them with continual income for the country as a whole. If we the consumers, and the apparel companies choose not to manufacture clothing in these developing countries this will cause concern and unrest as the country will the not be generating business anymore. Many developing countries rely on the mass production of apparel from developed countries, not only to provide income for the country but also as one of the best sources of income for individuals. Many would argue that workers would be worse off in other jobs if it weren’t for sweatshops. According to the Library of Economics Liberty, Art Carden says that their next best opportunities (agriculture or prostitution) are usually worse than sweatshop labour. It seems as though it is a double-edged sword. On one hand we are accepting exploitation, harmful conditions and unfair wages to get our orders filled and on the other hand without sweatshops, this would leave developing countries without profit and jobs. According to the University of Edinburgh from Just World Institute, it is particularly important that we do not leave developing country workers worse off. It seems as though in order for developing countries to benefit from production of apparel, they have to suffer.
What can we do to change the situation?
We can conclude that we will not be able to completely rid the world of exploitation, unfair wages and poor working conditions, as that will ultimately make them worse off. What can we do then? The best approach is to see what can be done to improve conditions for workers. According to the University of Edinburgh from the Just World Institute, it seems the best approach is to support campaigns for better wages and conditions despite the slow, incremental progress they make. The University also says, it is best to avoid boycotting and pressure these companies to sign up for better working conditions, help create worker unions and providing opportunities for their voices to be heard. The biggest change that we can encourage, support and run campaigns for is for better pay. The second is campaigning for better working conditions, where unlike Rana Plaza, we can levy for more safety inspections. According to WGSN Newsteam on February 17, 2014, a total of 150 global brands and retailers have joined the Bangladesh Accord’s Building and Fire Safety initiative aimed at making the Bangladeshi garment industry safe and sustainable. As well, because of the recent tragedies in Bangladesh, Andrew Jobling, WGSN, December 2013, has noted that Bangladesh has agreed to a minimum wage rise for workers in its garment industry. There has been a 77% agreed upon increase on wages. It is important that we as newcomers to the fashion industry take action by endorsing these campaigns, make sure that we are knowledgeable and educate people on where the clothes come from, who makes them and what conditions they are being made in. We must continually advocate for fair wages, safety and know that the inequality is worth fighting for. It should not take a major tragedy to see that changes need to be made.