By Christine Wöhrle, Noemi Berkowitz, and Lena Riedel from Group 2
We are complicit in inhumane conditions in our everyday life through buying and even through wearing clothes. Clothes that are produced under unethical conditions including “[e]xploitation, forced labor and child labor” (Khan, Rodrigues and Balasubramanian 2016). For many people, buying new cheap articles of apparel triggers a feeling of elation and joy. However, one must consider the supply chain of clothes, a chain that consists of multiple steps until the garment finally can be sold to customers. This begins with cotton growing and picking, continues through several intermediary steps like spinning, weaving, knitting and dyeing, until to the final step of sewing cloth into garments (Jalava 2015). With all of these necessary steps, one may wonder how garments can be sold that cheap. If we as customers do not pay the true costs of the garments we wear, who else does?
The documentary The True Cost examines this question. “Under the gentle, humane investigations of its director, Andrew Morgan, what emerges most strongly is a portrait of exploitation that ought to make us more nauseated than elated over those $20 jeans…The True Cost stirs and saddens.” This is how Jeannette Catsoulis describes the film in her review in The New York Times. It provides viewers a deeper insight into the supply chain of clothes and the effects on human rights and the environment and tries to give an answer to the aforementioned question (Catsoulis 2015).
In this blog, we will examine working conditions in garment industries, their environmental impacts, and the need for a human rights intervention. This is vital and, crucially, taps into the power that we as consumers have.
Human rights violations run rampant in an industry focused on profit. According to David Welsh of The New York Times, “low wages, long hours, unsafe buildings and inadequate regulations are the norm” in the global garment industry (Welsh 2016). In particular, we will focus on the abysmal working conditions in Bangladesh.
In Human Rights Violations in the Garment Industry of Bangladesh. Madeleine Jalava paints a picture of unsafe conditions reliant upon exploitative child labor. Working in extreme temperatures and often earning less than $1 a day, a child on a farm may work with insufficient food for up to 12 hours (Jalava 2015). These conditions shock us, but are the norm in other parts of the world.
Furthermore, when children work in factories, those buildings themselves are often unsafe. Vikas Bajaj describes the collapse of a factory in 2013 which killed over 1,100 workers in his New York Times article „What Bangladeshi Garment Workers Need From The West.“ He goes on to describe an intimidating environment that represses the possibility of labor unions through violence. For those factory owners, keeping costs low by refusing to invest in better working coniditions or pay higher wages is crucial in raising proft margins (Bajaj 2015).
The specific problems are numerous, including “faulty electrical circuits, unstable buildings, inadequate escape routes and unsafe equipment” (Ullah 2015). These working conditions fly in the face of international standards as well as human decency and a rudimentary respect for human dignity. Many of these operations are formed on illegal bases to meet their targeted production goals, satisfying oblivious consumers in countries far away.
The Necessity of a Human Rights Intervention
When it comes to human rights, the most crucial element to focus on is honest fair trade that doesn’t infringe upon any one actor’s fundamental human rights. This goes hand in hand with paying a fair price for goods and services, not trying to cheat and scheme to get the best price regardless of those people who are forced to work under inhumane working conditions. If we as consumers recognize that driving down the price has severe implications for human rights violations and do something about it, then we can create a more just society. Crucially, work and the conditions for fellow workers are honored by a fair price that allows humane working conditions to thrive. If we accept that human labor costs money, then we too will be treated fairly, and trade flourishes. We all benefit from humane practices internationally.
David Welsh (2015) writes about the problems faced by workers’ unions in Cambodia. He documents the announcements made by the government: a minimum wage, but then he renounces it. Workers strike and then are gunned down in the streets and the union’s rights were restricted. There is a basic human right for workers to form trades unions, but this seems to have been forgotten in Phnom Pen.
“In 2013 the minimum wage in Cambodia was about $80 per month, even though a government commission had determined that a “living wage” in the garment sector should be about $157-$177. In late December that year, the government, still ignoring its own findings, announced that as of April 2014 the new minimum wage would be $95 (and would gradually be increased to $160 by 2018). Within days it raised the figure to $100, but garment workers, led by independent trade unions, had already gone on strike. They shut down all factories for a week.” (Welsh, 2015)
The response was swift. On January 3, 2014, state security forces shot into a crowd of striking workers in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, killing five people and injuring more than 30. Prominent union leaders and workers were charged, imprisoned and convicted for incitement to violence and property damage. The right to form new unions and to assemble was in effect suspended for much of 2014.
The market economy is built on the principle that if a company can get it cheaper somewhere, they will, and will drive the price down. If all of those in power shared that philosophy, workers would become slaves. It is a terrible human rights crime that workers in India – children, women – have no social security, no safety net, no basic necessities. If they don’t work, they starve. This is a form of industrial blackmail and the west benefits because it wants a price that is cheaper than a price at which the industry can safely produce.
Human rights doctrines espouse basic human dignities, from full inherent dignity (freedom and equality) to acquired non-inherent dignity (NID), which includes access to social and economic goods. Though NID includes goods, some of those – such as food and shelter – are necessary for living and thus can be seen as part of full inherent dignity. In this situation, the necessary baseline full inherent dignity is not respected, and certainly NID rights such as education are afterthoughts. There must be fundamental change in this industry to restore human dignity (Michael 2014).
Conclusion: the Power of the Consumer
Ultimately, the industry will respond to supply and demand, and consumers hold the power to change the status quo. But will they?
The answer must be yes, even if it is not always easy. In fact, researchers have shown that “in fact consumers are willing to go an extra mile and even pay more for apparels that are manufactured ethically (Pookulangara, et al., 2011). Because of this shift in consumers’ perceptions and beliefs, a number of fashion companies such as H & M, and Timberland have begun to include ethical clothing lines (Siegle, 2012; Ficner, 2010). But the language needs to go beyond ethics and feel-good fashion. It must be made clear to consumers, internationally, that what they are supporting is a humanitarian crisis.
Still, consumers can only do so much with the options given them, and political statements may not be affordable for all. Therefore, companies engaged in the inhumane industry must be held accountable by their governments, to protect human rights. International accords must be substantively enforced that address the theoretical human dignity we have discussed in class throughout the quarter. Without awareness, clear policy, and enforcement, human rights abuses will continue in the garment and other industries globally.