We all share the shame

Posted by Kathleen Fasanella on May 1, 2013 at 5:26 pm / Slavery or Bravery / Trackback

Once upon a time, I majored in economics, specifically developmental economics aka “third world economics”. I wanted to change the world; go to work for the United Nations, the IMF or maybe the World Bank. And I did end up working for the UN but there were so many roadblocks -if they weren’t political or economic, they were social. For example, in the highlands of Guatemala where I was working at a weaving cooperative, women were limited to the portable back strap looms while the larger and more efficient floor looms gathered dust. The reason was, social mores dictated that only men could use the floor looms. Since most of the men were working in fincas or coffee plantations during the season and only came back sporadically, the potential for decreasing collective poverty was diminished. It was incredibly frustrating and sad.

But anyway. In developmental economics you learn that when a country is undergoing industrialization, the first industry that is developed is clothing manufacturing. I say industry implying value added as opposed to export of fungible commodities like agricultural products or mining. Did you know that clothing production is the first manufacturing strategy of any developing nation? As such, there is nothing in the way of means testing or infrastructure or even, ways to assess the solidity of infrastructure because it is so broad to include things like available power, water, proximity to transportation -much less political stability and social customs. So forget such lofty goals like building inspectors; the nation is too focused on generating export income. And having no money, how could they afford inspectors? Sure they can be homegrown but with so little experience in industrialization, what kind of meaningful experience can be learned and taught? I think I read somewhere that the whole country of Bangladesh has fewer than 300 inspectors. Elsewhere I read something like 80.

But anyway, since clothing production is the first industry to be developed in an untested nation, they’re lacking a lot of know how. It’s like anything -like you in your businesses- you don’t begin to learn what you need to learn until boundaries are pushed and you get a failure. I liken it to a slow leak in a tire. When the system is inefficient and not pushing the limits, the seepage is minimal; it’s a hassle you deal with. However, once the system is tested by full demand, a tire inflated to full pressure can explode. It’s not so manageable anymore. So that’s what happens. Systems abroad are very inefficient and paradoxically, that can keep people safer if not poorer. Once the operation scales with opportunity, those slow leaks can result in tragedy and death -not so harmless anymore. I’m not saying that catastrophic failure is inevitable so we should just live with it because I don’t think it is conscionable to act as though it were. Accepting inevitability strikes me as being morally and ethically compromised. I don’t know what the solution is. I only know that nations are no different from DEs in that they will choose to make decisions given their means while incurring avoidable risks.
—————–
There are no words to express how pained I am about the most recent disaster in Bangladesh. I’d waited to write about it, hoping to glean some sense of it -but nothing. Everyone is angry and outraged, using the incident to blame their target du jour. Many consumers blame manufacturers for putting profit before people. In the trade, conversation at the water cooler blames consumers for being so cheap that outsourcing has become a necessary evil. Among independent designers, many show a perverse glee in the fallout of larger firms. Those who produce domestically feel vindicated because they’re not to blame. Regardless of where you lie in the spectrum, you share the shame. It affects all of us.

Worst of all, this is never going to change. No matter how diligent manufacturers or inspectors become, no matter how much consumers pay for their products, there will always be negligence and accidents. This is not to say we should pack it in and go home; it’s like anything else. Starving kittens or kids. Abused women, the ill and disenfranchised. All we can do individually, is be proactive and caring enough to take what responsibility that lies within our means to limit tragedy within our reach. I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t outsource (and I’ve been ridiculed for it constantly). How could I? If I’m limited in the ways I can prevent a DE from taking advantage of my domestic contractors or even me, how could I prevent abuses an ocean’s length away?

Then we have the contingent that blames consumers. While I don’t deny there is some truth to that, consumers are not the ones who started the price war to the bottom. Clothing prices have decreased markedly in real terms over the past 30 years. But then, so have cars and other goods -what’s different about apparel? It is because apparel manufacturing is low hanging fruit, the first step on the road to industrialization and decreasing prices amount to a price war pitting X third world countries against each other. And sure, consumers could pay more but it matters where and how they spend and it is often too complex to determine value. By that I mean that there are plenty of big brands that use Bangladesh or Chinese labor who charge quite a lot for their goods using the same inputs as lower cost, lesser known brands; the difference is absorbed by marketing budgets. And glamor. Lots of glossy glamorous magazine editorial pages -to say nothing of increased profit. Truth be told, all this makes me want to cry and to quit my job. But what of that? I love to make things.

Like I opened with, I can’t change these macro mechanisms. All I can do is police my one small corner of the world. I haven’t worked in overseas production and considering the continuing pattern, I can’t see that changing. It is difficult for me to discuss this because it implies so many value judgements that I don’t think are necessarily fair. I know plenty of you use offshore facilities, some of them you really don’t know are any good, you just hope they are and others of you actually travel several times a year and work in the plants that make your stuff so you would know. Mostly.

In my company, I can only control what is going on around me. So I’ll never scale much beyond what I do now. That is okay. All I can really hope to do is to teach more of you how to run your own production. I can only hope that more will decide to do that.

One last word -change starts with you. If you’re an independent designer, you’re not off the hook if you’ve ever shafted a business partner. If you are slow pay or whine so much about the costs of services you’ve contracted for that your provider caves, you’re guilty. It’s bizarre; it seems that the customers with the most resources to pick and choose, are the ones who complain the loudest. If somebody took the hit on your job, don’t pat yourself on the back for doing it domestic. Relative to inflation, clothing prices have decreased by more than half in the last 30 years. Nobody ever said this was easy -your challenge in the face of limited budgets will be to convey value to your customers to exact the value of your goods. We can only do this collectively. Change starts with us.

35 Responses to “We all share the shame”

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FrancesMC
May 1st, 2013
8:31 PM

Kathleen, it might interest you to know that there is an article in the Globe & Mail Report on Business today about Gildan which has a factory in Bangladesh and how they upgraded their building and added safeguards for the employees.

I agree that it wasn’t customers who started the race to the bottom. That was the likes of Walmart who drove down their costs by driving their suppliers to cut costs too, often to the detriment of the suppliers (see Rubbermaid). So now we have the circular argument that their low prices benefit poor people who have been made poor by relentlessly cutting wages. Anyway, the disaster in Bangladesh is the result of incompetence and corruption and until such governments learn to do better (if they ever do), this is going to go on happening.

Lisa
May 1st, 2013
9:20 PM

Kathleen- really good post. Thank you for your (as always) thoughtful and thorough perspective. And thank you for continuing to uphold the values dear to you (and me) in your manufacturing. You continue to inspire me.

Katherine
May 1st, 2013
10:41 PM

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to pen your thoughts.

Marianna
May 2nd, 2013
12:13 AM

Very informative and thought-provoking article and I like the car tyre analogy. In light of the tragedy in Bangladesh, a politician here in the UK mentioned the concept of a “moral calculator” (he said he didn’t use one when he went clothes shopping). Do you think the moral calculator could ever catch on with us shoppers?

Michelle Moenssen
May 2nd, 2013
3:03 AM

I complain about the low cost of clothing to anyone who will listen. As a tailor, it makes my skills seem insignificant. In a consumer’s mind, if they can purchase a garment for $19.99, how difficult can it be to alter that garment? And how dare I charge them more to alter it than the cost of the garment? They know how low the cost of labor is in foreign countries but they definitely have a sort of “blinder” on as to how those garments can be made so cheaply.

The population where I live is willing to pay a huge premium for food that has been grown locally or has some other pedigree. I wonder when they will have that same concern towards the clothing that they wear. Why are you considered a smart shopper if you pay the lowest amount possible for a garment that is pretty much disposable?

Michelle Moenssen
May 2nd, 2013
3:10 AM

Today on NPR’s Fresh Air (WHYY) Terry Gross is interviewing Elizabeth Cline, the author of “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion”. An excellent book about this exact topic. She traveled to factories in Bangladesh.

Maripat
May 2nd, 2013
4:07 AM

@Lisa… My thoughts exactly. Thank you Kathleen.

marciae
May 2nd, 2013
5:37 AM

Great Post. I appreciate you taking time to post.

Sabine
May 2nd, 2013
5:57 AM

it’s hard to beat the WalMart mentality of so many people as well. Thank you for posting this.

Terri Gardner
May 2nd, 2013
6:23 AM

You put in words what many of us are thinking. In March I read Elizabeths Cline’s book “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost Of Cheat Fashion.” After reading it, I decided to take the one year pledge of, The Great American Apparel Diet. I can sew or thrift but no new clothes. My daughter also read the book and is one it with me. April 12th was our start date. After Bangladesh, we are even more focused.

Most of us agree, things have to change. But I am sure the answer is terribly complicated. But we can help by letting these companies know that we don’t want their merchandise if it comes at the cost of life’s of others.

Leah Barrett
May 2nd, 2013
6:29 AM

I can’t thank you enough for all you do to educate the industry here and support local manufacturing. Your love of the industry shows through it all, for the product for the people that make it. I have been 27 years apparel production much of it overseas including Bangladesh, and now teach Apparel Sourcing in Canada. I am also in a position to shape the way a few people think in my corner and vow to never forget.
The Label has been a star here, brand labels revealing the biggest users of the factory immediately, and “made in” labels allowing consumers to check country of origin when they are shopping next.

Myrrhia
May 2nd, 2013
9:35 AM

All true. I see danger everywhere in my friend’s apparel workshops. Bins overhead, piles of fabric . . . we all have something to learn from this. Also true that it is better to support organizations like “Labor behind the Label” and others than to boycott this fledgling industry.
There are other points that I think are important takeaways:

1. This specific building WAS inspected–and condemned–two days before the collapse. Other tenants of the building, including banks and retailers, shuttered their doors. But the garment workers were threatened that if they did not return to work, they would not be paid.

2. Why would a contractor risk their workers’ lives? Big contracts and deadlines. When I read about the miracles of logistics that Zara and other retailers perform with JIT lean, I know the pressures are coming down somewhere. In this case, they don’t bear it themselves. They hold their suppliers to deadlines, so if the contractor called their customers and said, “Sorry, your order will be late because my worksite was condemned,” I wonder what they would have said. “Well, YOU don’t get paid and we are never working with you again, read the contract that our Walmart lawyers drafted in our favor.”

The competition is terribly fierce, folks are literally dying for the chance to earn enough to eat, and the pressure is the worst on the bottom. The CEO’s salary doesn’t even take a shave. Mad, mad world.

Have any of you supplied a major retailer? Their specifications are VERY hard to live up to if you are little fish. Now imagine you are trying to do all that–in Bangladesh.

One solution I see is if the larger retailers offer more substantial support up AND down the supply chain–the way Toyota does it, hands on. Don’t just contract it away and then demand the Sun and Moon!

Bente
May 2nd, 2013
9:56 AM

Thank you Kathleen. I was just entering my Call-to-action form about this at the Ethical Fashion Forum:
http://source.ethicalfashionforum.com/article/bangladesh-240413-never-again-join-the-industry-in-a-constructive-response
This is a topic that has been close to my heart always..and I am so naive that I still want to change the World..
For others interested in the topic I recommend reading Chelsey Timmermann’s book “Where am I wearing?” as well as “Overdressed” by Elizabeth Cline as Michelle mentioned.
The topic is highly relevant also because more Brands/Manufacturers start to work Fair Trade and more sustainable according to ethical values because change is needed.
I think we all would be extremely sad and shameful if this accidents would happen to where we produce our garments (in US or overseas). The only way to avoid some of the accidents is to “supply” knowledge to the factories and education to Inspectors. The goal should be to get as much in control as possible.
If you are a small company you should probably stick to producing in US where your could be in more control. I know you have other things on your minds and on your budgets!
I agree with Kathleen; we all have a responsibility, specially because we are DE’s.
“Police your own small corner of the world” is what we need to do.
-educate about the value of the clothes we manufacture to our friends, colleagues, retail owners, sales reps and people you meet. Teach & Preach!
-Twitter, Facebook, Instagram..you name it….
The world have actually changes Kathleen. We can all engage and talk about it and we can reach millions if we want, right?

Bente
May 2nd, 2013
10:34 AM

Needed to post this cute video about the life cycle of a garment:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sm0XyyqOq7E&feature=youtu.be

kathleen lewis
May 2nd, 2013
6:30 PM

Thank you Kathleen for your thoughts on this. I know I have changed a lot in the years I have worked in this industry. Staying in this industry for all these years I have watched the changes and voiced my opinion to no avail. All I have been able to do is keep doing my work in my small way to be of service to my customers that have stayed here in the states. I sure do appreciate you and the knowledge and advice you give.

oah
May 2nd, 2013
6:36 PM

I only have experience in India, and I remember a fashion designer friend of mine, who made several trips to the clothing company we did business with. He told me a story about how everyday, when he arrived at the factory, a 10 year old boy would shadow him everywhere he went. The boy seemed to be waiting on him to ask for something. My friend realized what was going on after he’d asked one of the factory employees about the lad. He was told the boy was employed by the factory to run errands for him during his stay. The boy was paid 10cents per day. I thought, “how awful, a boy working for a few cents a day”. The factory worker said that the boy made more doing this than he could if he worked on the family farm. I was shocked, and was convinced that the boy was being taken advantage of.

Years later, I went to India to work. I loved it. I had a driver who waited on me most of the day. He was shy at first, but after I was there a few times we started a friendship. He told me how happy he was with his job. He worked 6 days a week, as most Indians are required to do, and made $66 a month. I was surprised at that salary, but he thought this was the best job he had ever had.

It turns out that he was saving money to improve his house in another state, where his wife and child lived. He wanted to put in cement floors and add some other improvements to his house and family farm.

He told me, that in this job, he got free room and board, plus uniforms, and health insurance. India has free health care, but even if you go for an operation, the drugs are not paid for and your family has to buy them. They also have to feed you while you are in the hospital. His employer paid him an extra $66 per year for his “health insurance” (items not covered by state provided health care).

You can’t judge other countries by what we are use to. Most poor people in the USA are rich by other countries standards. We think all countries are as rich as we are. It is no wonder why everyone is trying to come here.

I can only say from my own experience, that people in India are really happy with the clothing industry, and love the fact that they are working. The company I worked with had barbed wire around the plant, and a guarded entrance. The wire wasn’t to keep employees in, it was to keep robbers out. They had housing for employees who didn’t have a place to stay, or lived too far from the factory. They also had bus service to pick up workers, and take them home at the end of the day. Believe me, I talked to everyone that I could while I was there, and the overwhelming majority told me that they were happy with their jobs. Some of you may be thinking, “oh they just said that”, but it was the truth.

Now, as was mentioned before, Indian business culture, like other emerging economies, is nothing like American business culture. In the factory I worked at, only men were allowed to use the sewing machines, and they were all called tailors. Women were in another room, and did all the hand work (beading, embroidery, etc…). The factory was very modern by Indian standards for the time. It had marble floors and 12 foot ceilings, with fans to keep it cool. It also had one room with air conditioning for overseas vendors.

One of the things I noticed when going to and from the hotel, where I was staying, was all the new construction going on. I was shocked to see them building multistory buildings, with men on bamboo scaffolding tied with ropes, and men working in loin clothes, no hard hats, no boots, etc. Seeing this, I thought of the stringent building codes and standards enforced in the USA. I could only assume that the workers I saw were abiding by the codes , standards, and laws of the country; however inadequate I may have judged them to be at the time.
So my point is this. We shouldn’t judge other countries standards thru the prism of our American experience. We did not create their cultures, they did. We do not set their wages. They do. Is it possible or maybe even probable that America, like other well-established, diversified, globalist economies has had some sphere of influence in many of these emerging economies…YES. But to go so far as to blame us for their lower standards is ludicrous.

Andrew Sarno
May 3rd, 2013
6:06 AM

RE: oah
If I stand on a street corner and say, “Hey everyone, I need my pants hemmed and I only got $1. Who wants to do it?” And if a crowd appears, and someone in the crowd offers to do it for 50 cents…And if then someone will do it for 25 cents..and then if someone offers to charge me 5 cents…and if I say, yes, you there, you can hem my pants for 5 cents…I’m sorry, there is NO WAY I am not part of the problem. The alienating nature of industrialization and present-day commercial enterprise may very well allow me to walk into Target and buy my son a $4 pair of pants and never once give a shred of thought to where and to whom my $4 went, but let there be NO CONFUSION about the fact that I have just chosen to pay some worker in Bangladesh 2 cents to sew pant for my son. Yes, I spent $ at Target, and Target gave money to the clothing designer, and the clothing designer gave money to the overseas manufacturer, and the overseas manufacturer gave money to the worker, but all that does is show how vast and complex forces attempt to insulate consumers from responsibility and blame. Yes, all the workers could risk their lives and try to unionize to improve their lot…all the manufacturers could band together with their government and force designers to pay more for more responsibly made goods…all the designers could unite and demand better conditions in the factories…Target could demand the same of the designers…and, yes, WE could demand justice and equality and dignity for the ENTIRE supply chain simply by boycotting…but will that ever happen? My son needs pants and I need them to be cheap and I live in a society where knowing how to sew is a dead skill. I’m going to end this rant because I feel myself sliding into a religion-spiritual funk. So I will reiterate my point: you cannot be involved in an exchange of goods and services and pretend you are innocent just because you found a willing partner in the supply chain.

Susan Wright
May 3rd, 2013
7:05 AM

From the Harvard Business Review blog …

Preventing Another Bangladesh Tragedy: Three Ways to Transform Supply Chain Ethics

Steve New — May 2, 2013 | 11:54 AM ET — The collapse of the building with garment factories that killed more than 400 people in Bangladesh last week brings a hideous sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen this before, and we know that it will happen again. The rich billion of us who live lives of material luxury unimaginable to the vast majority of the world — and beyond the dreams of our own recent forebears — pause momentarily from our addictive consumption; we frown…

The link is: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/05/preventing_another_bangladesh.html

Chloé Rice
May 3rd, 2013
4:27 PM

I’m so grateful for you Kathleen, and to all the mindful FI folks. This tragedy only makes the hoops CA DEs like me have to jump through more poignant, and more appreciated.

Michelle I’m so glad you mentioned food vs fiber. I’ve been passionate about labor in the garment industry for a long time as I’ve wanted to design since childhood, but in the last few years my focus has shifted to the food system. In the work that I do as a food system organizer it is dumbfounding how little people think of where their clothes come from while at the same time being so diligent about the food they eat! Here’s hoping that gap in mindfulness dissipates…

Alison Cummins
May 4th, 2013
3:24 AM

oah,

Bangladeshi business culture may or may not be different from American business culture, but I don’t act based on other people’s values, I act based on my own. If (real example) I am staying with someone who beats a servant so badly that they are hospitalized for two weeks, I don’t accept this as part of local culture (though it is). I leave and stay somewhere else. It’s possible that I hire the servant myself at better wages.

That little boy was earning ten cents a day more than he could have at home. If I refused to hire him but instead raised his parents’ wages by twenty cents a day, he could go to school. Now he’s going to be illiterate for life.

I don’t know if you’ve ever paid more than the asking price because that’s what you had budgeted and thought was fair, but I have.

If it’s important to me to do business in Bangladesh, I have to think about where I need to compromise in order to be sure that my clothes can be made safely. Given what I know about conditions there I will want to inspect the factory and I’ll want to know about local infrastructure challenges so that I can understand whether my turnaround times are reasonable.

Jay Arbetman
May 4th, 2013
1:05 PM

This brought back some ugly memories for me. At the end of 1998, my brother and I were importing jackets from China and making sportswear in Chicago. My brother went to China to place our samples and early production for fall 1999. He came back from the trip sickened. While in China a frail elderly man approached him as he was getting into the car that the factory had sent for him. A policeman stepped up and clubbed the man brutally as he ordered the factory’s driver to pull away which he did but fast. My brother looked back and saw that the ferocious beating was continuing and assumed that the man was murdered. When my brother got to the factory, our agents saw that my brother was upset and asked him what was wrong. They just shrugged there shoulders when he told them what he saw. At about the same time, we came to the conclusion that many of our jackets were being sub-contracted. It painted an ugly picture and it was a picture that we clearly helped paint.

We got a slow start during the 1999 selling season and quietly closed our business.

Kathleen Lewis
May 4th, 2013
1:15 PM

I know most all Americans are in the dark about all of this and , or in denial. If we all really look at the real picture it would certainly sicken most people. People don’t want to know where their pretty new clothes, accessories and home furnishing come from or how. They just want them easy and cheap. The story about the elderly man is horrible. So how do we make a difference, really?

Kathleen Lewis
May 4th, 2013
1:17 PM

Personally I don’t shop in department stores and we do just fine and live very simply. If I were to look at the fabrics that are purchased for the products we make then that is the same thing in a different part of town in China, India, ect…..

oah
May 5th, 2013
6:29 AM

Sorry to have posted this,
I didn’t mean to stir up a rant. I was in India over 15years ago, and the people we worked with were our partners not our employees. They had one of the most modern factories there at the time, it was brand new. They paid the employees more than average, treated them better, provided transportation.
Just because the factory wasn’t paying American wages, doesn’t mean it was abusing the employees.

Delphine C.
May 6th, 2013
8:07 AM

There was an interesting article, from an economist point of view, in the financial times last week :
http://timharford.com/2013/05/boycotts-will-not-help-bangladeshs-poor/

Claire H
May 6th, 2013
10:43 AM

Thank you for the post, Kathleen.

I think it is important to note that this problem is not only happening overseas
but in our own country as well.
Many contractors in the United States do not pay minimum wage or taxes and have
unsafe, unhealthy work environments despite regulations. It seems like people equate
domestically made= legitimate, safe worke environment that pays minimum wages and taxes when
this is definitely not the case.

I only have direct experience with apparel contractors in the USA but I would imagine that just as there are here, there are both legitimate (safe, regulation abiding) and illegitmate (unsafe, poor conditions) factories overseas as well.

Alyson Clair
May 6th, 2013
11:11 AM

“all this makes me want to cry and to quit my job. But what of that? I love to make things.”

Thank you. I struggle with this every day. I run both a small made in Portland Oregon clothing line, and have a day job in the corporate apparel industry. I speak with how I spend my dollars and try to educate to anyone that will listen.

Samina Mirza
May 8th, 2013
9:22 AM

Kathleen, thanks for posting this from the POV of an insider in the garment industry.
I am a sewing enthusiast and cannot help but be distraught that so many people died while making — clothing. Clothing?? I create my own clothes because I love to do it. I feel distraught at the thought that the common denominator between me and the unfortunate factory workers was a sewing machine, plus fabric, thread and all other sewing implements.
May They Rest in Peace.

Veronica Whitaker
May 9th, 2013
10:31 AM

Thank you Kathleen for the post. You stated my feelings so eloquently.

Paul
May 11th, 2013
9:19 AM

Oah – I got your point exactly. Good and awful exist side by side everywhere. Not all employers treat their workers as if they were ‘consumables’ of the production process, although way too many do. This attitude exists in the US, after all, many US employers in every industry would get away with much more if they could. Large numbers of employers here will push everything to the absolute limit to make more money. Standards of living, and the wages needed to live a ‘decent’ life (relative to the standard of living) differ vastly between the west and developing nations, and we can’t judge the morality of these wages only on the difference from our own.

Alison Cummins
May 13th, 2013
4:40 AM

Paul,

Do you think that paying adults so little that they are required to put their children to work and thus deprive them of a very basic education is ok for other people in other countries but not in your own? Because that’s what oah was talking about.

Please note that it’s not just about an individual’s own wages. Let’s say that the Bangladeshi GDP per capita of $1,900 is good enough to keep everyone fed and housed and to allow most children to attend primary school of some sort. Internally people pay with takas, not dollars so this is entirely plausible. Or possibly people can get by with a GDP of only $1,900 because they don’t rely on cash. They grow their own food on little plots, they build their own houses out of found materials.

But for international trade takas are no good. To build infrastructure, buy medication and so on you need dollars. If dollars aren’t going into Bangladesh the the country can’t buy what it needs from other countries to build itself up.

In addition if cash is only a supplement to a basic subsistence economy, the government has little to tax. Without a tax base, how are roads, inspectors and health care going to be paid for?

Paul
May 15th, 2013
7:12 PM

Alison,
You are missing my point completely, and I can’t speak for Oah, but you’re missing the point that I took from her story. That point: don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. And no, we cannot judge others by our standards alone when it comes to things other than what you mention. It’s really not all right to beat someone just because you feel like it at the moment, not anywhere, not even in India, as evidenced by the reaction of multitudes of good, decent Indian people who don’t accept what is unfortunately all too common. I didn’t think for a minute that Oah was trying to justify paying people too little to live on, and I don’t think its OK either.

India is a big country, there are going to be some good employers among the bad. Maybe these good ones are a tiny minority, it’s easy to think that when we live a world away. None of us can change monetary policy with our individual businesses, I don’t even want to try. What I can do is treat the people I employ, and do business with, my customers, my friends, people I meet randomly throughout every day, including you and everyone I communicate with on the internet – I can treat them with the respect and dignity that they deserve as fellow human beings. I can try to look past my own soapbox and listen to what they have to say, and understand that I may not know it all.

It’s amazing how many people you can be a positive influence for, and even more amazing how much those influences can change someone’s life for the better.

Firoza
June 5th, 2013
8:23 AM

Dear oah,
I actually live in India at the moment, and I assure you that the Indian garment industry is just as rife with malpractices as the Chinese and Bangladeshi ones. For one thing, child labour (despite being illegal) is still common, with children being mainly employed in the embroidery and textile embellishment (e.g. hand beading, adding sequins etc.) sectors. Bonded labour is not uncommon in the south Indian textile industry even today — it is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to slavery. You may have had the good fortune to deal with an ethical employer, but given that Indians have cultural distaste for complaining to anyone who resembles a “higher authority”, I am somewhat disinclined to believe that all was indeed as rosy as you put it. As for the child who was assigned to be your errand boy, I really do think that the greatest service you could have done him, would have been by voicing very loudly that very fundamental question: “Why is this kid NOT AT SCHOOL?”. Even 15 yrs ago, India had laws ensuring that primary education was available for all children up to 14 yrs of age, and some kind of a free school lunch initiative was also there. I would suspect (esp. if you were in Southern India) that your errand boy was not just kept out of school because of his family’s financial needs, but also because he was most likely from lower castes, and therefore local social prejudices would demand that he be kept illiterate for life.

I do wish that visitors to India from the west would realise that they do have the power to change things — just voice your concerns out loud, and shame your hosts in to doing something about it. Racist as this may sound, deep down in their hearts, Indians desperately crave respect from the West. They want to be thought of as a 1st world country (in-the-making), and not just stay a 3rd world country forever. Neither slavery, nor child labour, nor enforced illiteracy should be excused under a policy of “different strokes for different folks”.
Some things should just not be acceptable to any civilised person, period. And that is why

I’ll get off my soapbox now. Thanks, Kathleen, for bringing up this topic, and letting me post this comment.

oah
June 6th, 2013
3:44 PM

Firoza,
I think you should re-read my post. I did not have an errand boy.

Alison Cummins
June 7th, 2013
7:41 AM

Paul,

Kathleen’s point was that there’s a baby in all that bathwater and it’s hard to know what to do.

oah’s point was that if other countries decide that their children don’t need education or safe working conditions, or that safe buildings are not a priority then who are we to judge? They know their own needs better than we do. They set their own standards and we are just visitors. To impose our own values would be to display our ignorance. (oah, do I have that right?)

Except — India forbids the employment of children in factories, period. It’s against the law. There *are* local standards and they are quite clear that children working in factories is unacceptable.

I am also quite sure that Bangladesh has codes that require buildings not to collapse and factories to allow employees to escape from burning buildings. Corruption may exist to the point that there is no effective enforcement, but Bangladeshis do not accept that teenagers should have to risk death in order to work.

If I wanted to operate out of India or Bangladesh, I could not help but be aware that one of the reasons it’s so cheap is that corners are cut at the expense of workers. I would need to find ways to mitigate that problem. If I am working with a plant that is operating illegally — locking employees in, employing children — that’s a problem *even if I get away with it.*

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