Take off your shirt. Go ahead, take it off and look at the label. Where was it made? Odds are you are not wearing a shirt made in Canada, the United States or really, just about about anywhere in the European Union. Of course, this is and should not be news to anyone. We surely don't think that the cheap clothing we wear each and everyday is socially neutral? Or, perhaps the bigger question is do we care?
On April 24th in the town of Dhaka, Bangladesh an eight-storey factory building collapsed. Within a day the dead numbered 152. This week the death toll has surpassed 1000. The building was being used to produce cheap clothing for "westerners". Perhaps most shocking for Canadians was the inclusion of Joe fresh (a subsiduary of Loblaws was using the facility). Here is the thing, I am not quite sure why we're so shocked. It appears that we in North America are incredibly disconnected from the brand names that we wear each and everyday. However, this has been a issue with clothing since Nike first took its manufacturing out of the United States in the 1970s. In fact, one could argue that this has always been a problem throughout history. The Egyptian pyramids were crafted by non-Egyptian slaves and the cotton of the southern states was not picked by white people. Modern sweatshops are an extension of historical slavery (shame on those professional basketball players selling Nike and Adidas), however now, we don't have it in our own backyards, so it becomes all the easier to ignore.
The Joe Fresh website lists a Women's classic tank at $5. Think about what $5 can purchase. This shirt, a piece of clothing, is worth less than a meal at McDonalds. Does this seem reasonable? How much would be too much? Of course we can find similar deals at Target, Walmart and just about any other discount retailer, which only creates more justification for the incredibly low prices. But, what about the social cost of buying clothing? By comparison, companies like American Apparel and Canadian-owned Red Canoe show tank tops in excess of $20. These prices obviously note a difference in how these products were made. In the example of Red Canoe you have products made in Canada by Canadian workers. Just to note the differences in wages a Bangladeshi worker gets an average income of $38 a month. In comparison, a Canadian textile worker makes approximately $1200 a month. Thus the price of a shirt made here, employing Canadians is - of course - going to be more expensive.
Obviously, in light of the Bangladeshi collapse, we have begun to focus on clothing. However, in doing so we ignore the other products being built outside of Canada in nations that treat workers' rights - and indeed civil rights - objectionably. In fact just 12 days prior to the Bangladeshi collapse Dollarama released its earnings for the 2013 financial year. The discount giant "reported a profit of just under $221 million". This figure was up almost 50 million from the 2012 figures. The fact is that Canadians love discounted merchandise and apparently we do not care about the social cost associated with them. Walmart Canada is the fourth richest private company (behind two insurance companies and an oil company) in Canada. They are a virtual juggernaut of discounted materials that are - like dollarama - mostly made in sweatshops or using cheap third-world labour. One needs not look any further than the anticipated arrival of Target in Canada to see that Canadian shoppers are prone to say that our freedoms and human rights are important, but get far more excited about cheap ironic T-Shirts than we do about workers' rights. The list goes on and on: Starbucks, Burberry, Disney, Reitmans, Adidas. No matter what the industry, the truth is that as we flock to discount retailers and seem willing to put our "belief" in rights on hold in favour of "low, low prices".
Of course, the argument that allows us to sleep at night is a simple one: people in third-world countries need jobs and we provide those jobs in the form of cheap labour. Some economists rather dishonestly argue that the alternatives to sweatshops are much worse. Yes, the truth is that working in the apparel industry does pay more than just about anything else in a third-world country. But, what we often forget is that the apparel industry is established by major players and built off of our consumer fetishism. The fact is that those employed by other means in these countries are not paid by multi-national corporations. In other words, multi-billion-dollar companies are choosing to pay workers slightly more than those living is complete poverty. Phil Krugman, in a piece in Slate magazine noted that these workers are "inevitably, paid very little and expected to endure terrible working conditions...because their employers are not in business for their (or their workers') health; they pay as little as possible, and that minimum is determined by the other opportunities available to workers". Therefore, if a multi-national corporation sets up in a third-world country they do so only because there are little opportunities and by extension it is far cheaper to create products. A living wage in Bangladesh is a mere $22 a month more than the average apparel workers in Bangladesh. Ultimately, if those wages are even minimally raised the positive outcomes to the economy would be monumental, whereas the impact on the corporations' "bottom line" would be minimal. So, in truth the argument that we are somehow helping the poor workers of the world instead only shows how the multi-national corporations that we abide to don't care at all. Perhaps more importantly, if we are trusting in and buying into those companies, we by extension are complicit in their objectification of the poor. And, perhaps that is the biggest issue.
Over the past two weeks we have looked at the pictures of Dhaka and (hopefully) felt sympathy for those who have been left without family members. But, in actuality, have we given it a second thought as we have bought products since? I think the answer is a resounding "no". Sure, Galen Weston Jr. "vowed to be a force of good", but at the end of the day this is meaningless when we acknowledge that it is coming from the 2nd richest family in Canada and a company that sells Tees for $5 a piece. The cynic in me sees a Canadian company ready to do battle with Walmart and Target, and a Canadian population looking for the cheapest price. As the press of the world allow Mr. Weston and others like him to slip quietly into the rubble of Dhanka, it is up to us - not the industry - to make change.
Of course people will argue that they don't know if their clothing is made "ethically" and therefore, are unable to do much. But, in reality I think we do know, or at least have an inkling. We are instead choosing not to care. Sarah Morris, business development director of Trajectory Partnership, has said that the Bangladeshi building collapse will "have scant long term impact on a cash strapped" or "utterly disengaged" consumer. We know the nations of the world that are living in abject poverty and we know, that if we take the time to read the labels we would still - even knowing the conditions that the clothing was made in - probably decide to buy the shirt.
When we search out the lowest of low prices, we trade our souls, our morals and our selves.
I hope I am wrong. But sadly, I don't think I am.
Besides, it's okay if I get a really good deal right?
I write about education, music, politics and my own philosophical conundrums. If I have left you thinking about something let me know. Sometimes I think this world needs more thinking.