18 July, 2013

Finding My Bangladesh??

I was taken aback by my own passion earlier today.  Though I can rant about non-issues like door slamming neighbors and unfairness at work with aplomb (please tell me I'm using that right...), it's rare that I find myself really caring about something important. 

Global warming?  Bad...but not going to be solved by me.
Dogfighting? Bad...but what would I do?  It's not like I know anyone who participates...

Generally, I hear things that make me sad for a few minutes and then I move on to rainbows and puppies and unicorns.  But this thing keeps nipping at the back of my mind, and I think maybe this time I'm going to act.

My "History of Work in America" class requires a weekly discussion forum, where we read a series of required "primary source" articles (and occasionally watch video clips), choose one question from a list of about 10, form an opinion, cite two of the sources, and blather for a minimum of 150 words.  We then choose a classmate's post and comment on their use of the source materials and whether they proved their point, in a minimum of 100 words.  That's it - nothing to it - easy points.  So this week, the question I selected was the following:

Could you conclude that sweatshops exist in developing nations because a developing nation--like the United States was in the nineteenth century--must go through the historical phase of harsh economic development in order for that developing nation to develop a modern economy?

My Opinion:
Nope...Sweatshops are NOT OK
My answer to this question can be summed up in two words: absolutely not.  Arguing that slave wages and unsafe working conditions are in any way “necessary” promotes consumerism at the expense of basic human rights.
We meet John Keady in the video, “Nike Sweatshops and the Sydney Olympics.” Keady researched working conditions in Indonesia and decided to see for himself whether the jobs were livable.  Not only did Keady lose 25 pounds in the month he worked in a Nike factory, but his wages were barely enough to pay for a rat-infested room and enough food to subsist on.  His decision to put an American face and voice to a first-hand worker account brought the plight of the workers to middle-class consumers around the world.
Meanwhile, the Stossel video “Are Sweatshops factories good?” is nothing more than a condescension against human rights protestors.  He managed to find a few people from developing countries to extol the virtues of factories.  His report is not very in-depth, and sounds like a commercial for these factories.
Another first-person account came from the article “Working Overtime to Vanquish Sweatshops.   One immigrant, the daughter of factory workers, recalls her childhood: ''My mother was working 15 hours days,'' Betty Yu said. ''I didn't know my mother. I didn't know my father. They were at work when I woke up and when I went to bed at night.”  While this account probably mirrors that of children of nineteenth century US factory workers, one important differentiation can be made: though conditions then were deplorable, with long hours and dangerous working conditions, people around the world were immigrating to the US in massive numbers.  The bad conditions here were still better than the terrible conditions they left behind.  Who is immigrating to Bangladesh today?
Generally speaking, my commentaries hit right around 175 words.  So the fact that I managed to ramble on so extensively on this topic surprised me.  But hey - it's good to enjoy an assignment every now and then!  Today, I read an opposing viewpoint from one of my classmates.  I'd also like to share her commentary, followed by my response...
Sweatshops Boost the Economy * I would absolutely agree that developing nations must endure the same phase of harsh economic development that the U.S. did in order to develop a thriving economy; and utilizing labor to produce products sold in America is a great way to develop that economy. It’s called globalization “the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets,” as defined by Webster. Newer generations in India, Africa, China and Korea live better than the older generations before them because of production for U.S. goods (Are Sweatshop Factories Good?).   
The video (Nike Sweatshops and the Sydney Olympics) proved that globalization does work. That video was made in 2000? According to the Jakarta Globe, by early 2013, Nike planned to make the manufacturing plant in Jakarta “the largest manufacturing base for Nike apart from China and Vietnam.” Minimum wage was raised by 44%. That’s more than a 3 ½ percent increase in the cost of living per year. That’s a bigger cost of living wage than some American workers earn in  a year. 

As much as I love the idea of globalization and a global economy, I believe that a truly global economy should have standardized minimum wages (based on the nation's economy, of course) and a certain minimum of guaranteed worker safety.  I acknowledge that factories are not all sweatshops, and that for some workers in developing countries (as well as workers in this country) factories are perfectly safe and pay a decent wage.

I am very confused by your perspective that the Sydney Olympics video shows globalization in a positive light.  And while I find your statistics on the rising minimum wage a positive sign, I'd also like to point out that money doesn't do these workers any good if they die in an industrial accident due to their deplorable working conditions.  Just in the past six months in Bangladesh:

* November 2012: 117 killed in clothing factory fire
* April 2013: 1,000+ killed in factory collapse
* May 2013: 8 people killed in factory fire
* ...and just this week: finally, Bangladesh gives factory workers the right to unionize.  However, I wanted to highlight the following quote, pulled from the last article (emphasis mine):

"The government is in talks with labour groups and factory owners on a new minimum wage for the garment sector. Its current $38-per-month minimum pay is half what Cambodian garment workers earn.
Bangladesh last increased its minimum garment-worker pay in late 2010, almost doubling the lowest pay. This time, wages are unlikely to go much higher as factory owners, who oppose the raise, say they cannot afford higher salaries as Western retailers are used to buying cheap clothing."

"Harsh economic development" is one thing.  However, ignoring the horrible treatment of human beings for the sake of a $3 t-shirt from Wal Mart isn't globalization - it's exploitation. looks like, of all things, I am passionate about global workers' rights.  Who'd have thought?!?  I remember trying to find clothes made in the US a few years ago, and determined that my options would literally be to look Amish or to sew my own.  And I justified my inaction by telling myself that not all clothing factories are sweatshops.  Maybe my $5 t-shirt was made by happy well-fed women putting children through college on their wages.  I can't possibly solve this problem on my own.  And what I do probably won't make a bit of difference.  But that's not going to stop me from acting.  With one exception, I've boycotted Wal Mart for over a year over the poor treatment of workers in their stores in this country!  
I pledge that I will no longer buy clothes made in Bangladesh until real substantive change is brought to the clothing factories.  A living wage and safe working conditions should be guaranteed to every worker on the planet, and I am willing to pay more to do my small part. 
Though I can't find an article to explain this point more clearly, I learned in my labor economics class that labor costs are a small piece of a very large cost-benefit equation, and increasing the labor rate does NOT cause the product on the shelf to go up by the same amount.  That means a labor raise of $1/hour might translate to $.10 per piece of clothing. However, of that $.10, only 2-3 cents would actually be passed along to the consumer.
...but even if the cost of every article of clothing you buy went up by $1 - from a $5 t-shirt to a $6 t-shirt - wouldn't that be worth it to know there aren't starving workers living in filth?  And before you say you can't afford that extra $1 per shirt, consider all the ways to pay less - sales, coupons, clearance racks, stores like Ross and TJ Maxx, consignment/second hand/thrift stores... that was an awful lot for one post.  Sorry about that.  Like I said, apparently I found my voice. And I can't seem to stop singing!

1 comment:

mamajoy said...

I realize for brevity, the entire course isn't here. But how do we correlate a bad thing that happened in the USA in the 19th century to its emergence as a super power? Did America become great BECAUSE of factories?

Charles Dickens was very anti-industrial too. If you still have a Norton Anthology of Brit Lit, check out his poetry. If you don't I'll give you mine. What he said then fits right in with this Bangladesh issue.

Hmmm ... might just go look it up myself!