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‘Fast fashion’ the root of Bangladesh’s inhumane sweatshops

A collapsed garment building in Bangladesh has brought attention back to overseas sweatshops, but the issue needs more than just fleeting attention.
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Scaachi Koul, April 26, 2013 4:58:33 PM

So far, 275 bodies have been pulled from the rubble of a collapsed garment building in Bangladesh.

Worse, perhaps, was that a Canadian company had a hand in the building’s poor working conditions and shoddy infrastructure—a number of Joe Fresh items were made in the building.

Joe released an apology, and reiterated that their labour standards are far better than they now appear to be, but people are upset regardless. They should be. But it’s not like Joe is the only company with crummy sweatshops in the second and third world. Even companies that you think would be Canadian-made are overwhelmingly manufactured on other continents where the wages are low and no one cares about their working conditions.

But companies don’t manufacture their goods in sweatshops because they’re inherently evil: they do it to save money, and they do it so that the product in question is cheaper for the consumer. There’s no way that the H&M top you’re picking up could be $6.50 if it was made in Tecumseh and not in a remote village in the third world. Such is the temptation of “fast fashion”—cheap, disposable, trendy. Did I mention cheap?

So in order to get companies to stop using sweatshops and abusing the system, customers have to first be prepared to pay more for their clothes, and apply pressure on companies to change their labour standards.

Joe may have been prepared to release a tepid, contrite statement, but it might mean nothing when their fall items come into stores. Customers—and this is by no means an easy task—have to maintain their resolve to not buy products from companies with shady labour regulations. Companies have zero motivation if not financial motivation, so if there’s a threat of losing customers en masse, they will change their ways.

That, too, is a double-edged sword. Sweatshops aren’t the sole cause of poverty, but rather a symptom of it. By drastically raising the cost to make something in the second or third world, or taking those jobs away altogether, their economies will only suffer.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with buying something not made in Canada or the U.S. or Europe. Instead of making it a blanket requirement — which some campaigns do — that all items should be home-grown, we should instead require that companies have humane labour standards. Employees paid decent wages, who aren’t working 17 hours straight, who aren’t physically or mentally tormented by their jobs.

The onus shouldn’t solely be on the consumer, either. Government should have trade regulations that restrict importing goods from countries or sweatshops that don’t abide by labour standards. Many may slip through the cracks, but there still isn’t some kind of checklist that guarantees you’re shopping at an ethical company.

It’s also difficult for people to know which companies deal in fair trade and what products are made humanely. What may also be needed is a standard of practices, or a board that confirms a company is handling labour overseas appropriately. Right now, companies write press releases assuring customers that all their employees are being treated fairly. Joe may cross their heart and promise that their sweatshops aren’t sweatshops. Canadians have little proof of that.

Some cities have fair trade organizations as well, so keeping an eye open for one in your area, or educating yourself on what you should or shouldn’t buy is key.

People are lazy. Few want to go too far out of their way to enact change, unless it’s made easy for us. But every so often, it’s essential to put your back into it, and maintain your outrage long enough to force a company to reshape their labour rules.

Does it work? It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s a good bet that companies like Apple wouldn’t be as diligent about overseas labour as they are today, were it not for the outrage shown by the media and consumers alike in the past.

It’s hard, it’s not a lot of fun, and it’s going to cost you more money. You just need to decide if the lives of people who live on the other side of the world, stitching your jeans, are worth it to you.

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