The Sweatshop Debate

Most of us have either been in or passed by a Trade Aid store and either seen/purchased/considered purchasing a pair of No Sweat Shoes or similar ‘sweatshop-free’ product. A friend of mine who did so was later shocked to realise that his union-made sneakers were produced in fair conditions Portugal, not in China as he had originally thought. (They are now actually produced in Jakarta, Indonesia). This raised the question “am I really helping Chinese sweatshop workers by buying shoes from a company in another country and effectively taking jobs away from them?”

This question has some weight to it. One one hand, if clothing companies stopped importing goods from countries without minimum wage or work safety laws (like China), then businesses would have no reason to build factories in those countries in the first place and thousands of workers would lose their jobs and their livelihoods. Sweatshops also provide a high quantity of inexpensive goods that allow poor consumers in other nations to afford products that they may not have been able to otherwise. Additionally, no one is physically forcing sweat-shop laborers to take low wages, work long hours and suffer under hazardous conditions – if workers don’t like it, they can quit.

However, the issue is not so black and white. Though workers may have to choose to work in slave-labour conditions in order to survive, that does not mean they want to, or that it is right for clothing companies to exploit their poverty in such a demeaning way. Also, these workers are paid so little that they have to work 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week during peak seasons, often with just one day off a month, just to survive. The cycle of poverty is never broken. The fact remains that Nike, Wal-mart and GAP can afford to pay workers the wages they need to survive, but they don’t, because they are greedy. But the consumer plays a huge part in all this as well. Suppose Nike and GAP did raise workers wages, and as a result they raised the prices of their clothing in order to remain competitive with other clothing companies.. What would you do? Would you pay more money? Or would you start buying your clothes from someone else?

Stop for a moment and look at the clothes you’re wearing right now. Do you know where they were made? Do you know who made them, and under what conditions? Would you like to know these things, or would you prefer not to? What is your role, as a New Zealand consumer, in the “sweatshop debate”? Do consumers have a responsibility to ensure that the makers of the products they buy are treated fairly? Is this the responsibility of companies like Wal-Mart and Nike? Is it the responsibility of the Chinese government?

There are no worker rights in China, and least of all the right to organize an independent union. Any such attempt will be met with firing, arrest and imprisonment. I believe our focus must remain on the role of the clothing companies and their contractors in China (and other developing nations that allow sweatshop labour) in denying worker and human rights. We must do everything possible to support the struggle of the people of China to win those rights. We are in the global economy together.

I don’t advocate simply boycotting sweatshop products, since it does not send the corporations any detailed message about why their product isn’t selling, and the presence of such corporations in China is bringing more money into the economy. However, boycotts combined with protesting and marching etc can be used to inform corporations as to why they are having a drop in sales.

Once a corporation begins to realise that they can make it a selling point of their product that they do not use sweatshop labour, they will be able to make money out of it. That is the profit-motive at work again, and it will be the only motive that will ever govern a corporation. However, it is up to you and I to make an effort to organise such campaigns and drive the message home. Boycotting alone will not work, and can be argued to have a negative effect on the very people we are trying to help.

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~ by humblemonkey on February 23, 2007.

4 Responses to “The Sweatshop Debate”

  1. My my Will, you have been prolific!

    I honestly don’t know where I stand on the sweatshop debate. Obviously buying the products of sweatshops helps keep people employed. But what about all the negative side effects of that employement such as urbanisation, increased consumption, habitiat loss, social costs of cheap labour etc . . the list goes on.

    I’m starting to realsie that one of the few ways to get past this issue is to buy local. Especially when it comes to fruit and veg. And who knows, if the global transport system starts to collapse (which I doubt, that’s an extreme opinion) then sourcing goods from overseas may beceom a whole lot more expensive anyway.

  2. You’re quite right Phil… any opinion about Sweatshops will be based on a person’s economic iedology. Supporting the employment of the chinese people by transnational corporations means supporting the current global market model, which is founded heavily on industrialisation and all the problems that come with it. Its a hug sticky ball of wax. In some respects I am a capitalist, because I believe in innovation and maximising returns – but I don’t believe in unbridled capitalism, where social and environmental concerns are completely externalised for the sake of growth. Then you have to wrestle with ethical/spiritual beliefs about traditional lifestyles, consumerism etc.
    A top-down libertarian who worships free trade and capitalism might find buying local a fairly illogical way to go. I find it a handy alternative because it brings trade right back down to the relational level, where once again we have a chance to actually relate to other human beings as the producers of life’s neccessities.

  3. […] can afford to pay workers the … I honestly don??t know where I stand on the sweatshop debate. … Nike’s Sweatshops | No SweatBy JEFF BALLINGER The current strike wave in Vietnam can be […]

  4. sorry….I have a question..What if someone say that “If the sweatshops close, the workers of sweatshop will loose their job, they won’t have any job else to do so they will die because starving or do illegal works. ” How can against that idea?

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