The Price of Cheap Fashion: Sweatshop Safety

You may think your $6 T-Shirt from Walmart is a great buy, but it comes at high cost to third-world laborers.

You go to a store, you buy something, you wear it, end of story. Right? Wrong. Everything has a life-cycle, and with apparel, it doesn’t start in the shopping cart. Thousands of miles away laborers are living and working under unsafe conditions that have lead to death and other tragic outcomes.

Where and Who Your Clothes Come From

A majority of retail clothing is made overseas under unethical conditions. A guide to ethical shopping provides options for conscious shopping, but it includes no popular, hip, or big retailers. There are countries, such as Bangladesh, that depend on export earnings from sweatshop labor as much as we depend on them for apparel.

According to the International Labor Rights forum, 78% of the Bangladesh’ export earnings come from apparel export, where 3.4 million garment-workers are employed at ready-made garment (RMG) factories.

Laborers in Bangladesh have a minimum wage of about 20 cents per hour, or $10 per week. This is significantly lower than any other major garment-producing country, and is not enough to support the basic needs of workers, let alone their entire families.

These garment workers, 85% of which are women, face appalling conditions, unreasonably long hours, work-related injuries (fires and building collapses,) as well as sexual harassment and discrimination. On April 24, 2013, a fatal building collapse of Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, rendered over 1,000 dead and many more injured or disabled.

Placing the Blame

While the consequences of lacking safety regulations has proved fatal far too frequently, it remains that people work in sweatshops out of choice, usually because there is no better alternative.

While the Bangladesh government is certainly guilty due to their extreme shortcomings, as are the employers running these unsafe factories, and companies buying from them. Consumers (you and me) contribute to the issue as well; in the end, they are making the products because we are buying them.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this issue. Nearly half of all industrial employment in Bangladesh is entirely dependent on RMG factories; the garment sector contributing 13% to the GDP. Jobs are only available because the wages are low, ensuring that we can get our $6 t-shirts overseas. Raising wages might only make things worse; higher prices could drive companies away entirely, and leave a large chunk of the population jobless.

Efforts for Change

The main way to combat the horrible conditions in Bangladesh sweatshops, and stop tragic incidents such as the Rana Plaza collapse from happening, is not to stop shopping at stores such as Walmart, Gap, and others. Even if the solution were that easy, hurting their business hurts the laborers, too.

We should instead spread knowledge that might lead to better safety standards and rights – already, there has been an Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh which many retailers have signed, and which will implement rules and regulations on factories.

While over two dozen European companies have reportedly signed, American giants such as Walmart, Gap, JCPenny, Target, and Sears have declined to join the accord. Though they have their own reasons, including having safety implements already in place (Gap, Walmart), it’s hard not to wonder if they are just defending their cheap tees, rather than showing responsibility and doing their part.

On a Larger Scale

Bangladesh is only an example of the sweatshop issues worldwide that perpetuate unsafe conditions and unfair pay for the sake of the low prices we think nothing of. The International Labor Rights Forum has a mission to create a sweat-shop free world, and list the ways that you can help here.

Care about the rights of laborers in Bangladesh, and worldwide? Share the understanding with your friends. Questions, Comments, Concerns? Tweet us @curiousmatic. We’d love to know your thoughts.