“At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about $5 t-shirts”

The title of this piece quotes a Facebook post by Jennifer Doe, a widely respected labor organizer here in Boston.

Jennifer is referring, of course, to the latest workplace safety horror in Bangladesh: Last week, an eight-story building housing garment factories collapsed, with the death toll approaching 380 and very likely to rise. (Go here for extensive coverage by The Guardian.)

Last November, some 120 people died in a fire at another Bangladeshi garment factory. It bore an eerie similarity to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in New York City, where 146 workers perished.

The $5 t-shirt, the $30 DVD player, and so on

The Bangladeshi workers were making clothes for U.S. brands. As we go about our business today, many of us could be wearing the results of their toil.

Which is exactly Jennifer’s point. Lots of consumer goods that we buy in shiny department, big box, and electronics stores carry low price tags in large part because they were made by workers in impoverished countries who earn subsistence wages while facing harsh, sometimes life-threatening working conditions.

Thrift vs. blood savings

I fully understand the value that many Americans put on thrift. Especially during these difficult times, inexpensive clothing, electronics, and other goods are especially appealing to anyone on a tight budget.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression. Throughout their lives, she and her sisters dutifully clipped coupons and waited for sales to buy things they needed. While concededly I have not wholly internalized their level of thrift, I get it: Hunting for a bargain is a good thing.

But we need to face the question of the human costs of these bargains. Most of us have purchased goods made by low-paid workers in other countries. In the case of products made in countries like Bangladesh, however, we’re talking about downright blood savings. These folks are dying so we can buy inexpensive stuff.

The path to labor globalization

The terrible situation in Bangladesh is hardly an isolated phenomenon.

The globalization of manufacturing involves the constant search for the cheapest, most exploitable labor possible. The rough pathway started with manufacturing jobs secured by union collective bargaining agreements in the north, followed by the flight of those jobs to anti-union southern states. When those wages got “too high,” manufacturers fled to other countries where workers were willing earn a tiny fraction of what even the lowest-paid Americans expected to receive.

More recently, as manufacturing workers in places like India have engaged in labor organizing, these companies are packing up again for new places to mistreat the rank-and-file, such as Bangladesh. However, now that Bangladeshi workers are protesting these recent disasters, I’m sure these companies will start looking elsewhere.

They may be running out of South Asian countries, but sub-Saharan Africa has yet to be fully exploited in this way. Wouldn’t it be obscenely ironic if American-led multinationals targeted the continent that supplied future slaves to the U.S. for their next round of exploitation? It’s not an implausible scenario.

6 responses

  1. Hi David, I have been thinking of you every day since the
    Boston Marathon. Hope you are doing OK. John would have loved your recent blog on t-shirts. As an avid t-shirt wearer, he would have been horrified by the tragedy in Bangladesh, too. This week, by the way, I am starting my “Events Planning Workshop” at the local college so I can start planning next summer’s seminar/conference. I believe my health is improving (my eyesight is great!) so I will take good care of myself so we can do this! Chris

  2. Insightful commentary. US consumerism smacks of complicity in the lack of safety initiatives in other countries. Sadly, we are not always responsible for our own safety initiatives (Texas).

  3. A very tragic story and horrid mistreatment of human beings. If there were a way these people could be paid more with orders for T-shirts from Minding the Workplace, for Americans being bullied (Bully Awareness T-Shirts); or any T-shirts that represent the Healthy Workplace Bill to spread the word to pass into law. I do not know how this could be done. If anyone has a thought?

  4. To me, this boils down to a very values laden and driven discussion. What does it say about us when we place our wants above the needs of others? I think we need to revisit our priorities and examine our values in light of the realization that obtaining our desires will have impacts beyond our myopic world view. “Let them eat cake” is an uninformed response to starving peasants who complain of having no bread , but once the knowledge is gained that response becomes calloused and immoral.

  5. Rather than feed the 21st century sweatshops, I purchase my clothing at second hand stores. Women’s “fashion” is an industry run by misogynistic idiots; why any person of conscience supports them is beyoung me. If everyone bought their clothes at rummage sales and thrift shops, those 380 people in Bangadesh would BE ALIVE TODAY. There IS an alternative to the Gaps and Walmarts.

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