Solidarity Along the Supply Chain: Why We Should Care About Sweatshops

This is the first of a series of occasional posts on issues of solidarity. As a long-term project, I am exploring the idea that every significant public issue raises problems of solidarity – of establishing emotional ties and making common cause with people who seem profoundly separated from us by differences of culture, class, body, space and time. The primary moral challenge of the modern world is forging bonds of solidarity; it is essential to making progress on every issue that matters to the future of humanity.

The defining feature of twenty-first century American culture may be the fantasy that there is something transformative about mass violence, suffering and death.  From the 9-11 attacks on, we have witnessed a numbing litany of mass catastrophes – deaths and suffering from terrorism, war, senseless killing sprees, and the alchemy of social, meteorological and geological circumstances that shape the so-called natural catastrophes of drought, flood, famine and fire. Through the mass media we witness the death and suffering of others in lurid, emotionally shattering detail, but with a frequency and on a scale that defies our powers of recall, let alone our ability to comprehend and care. And yet, every time, even as the broken bodies are being pulled out of the smoldering ruins and the blood is being hosed off of the street, we tell ourselves that this time it will be different. Surely catastrophe on this scale, loss this terrible, cannot be ignored and will finally compel us to take action. Surely we will never forget, we will not allow such horrors to happen again. But soon enough the shock diminishes, and our attention wanes as the restless media eye flits to other things. And nothing ever really changes, does it?

Any number of recent events might be taken as an occasion for such thoughts. But I write this specifically as a reaction to the collapse in April of an eight story building in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people. The story seems particularly compelling because it connects the intimate, everyday appetite for cheap clothing of consumers in affluent nations with the callous exploitation of the global poor. Five garment factories housed in the building – facing pressure to fulfill contracts with European and American retail giants and big name apparel brands – refused to halt production despite warnings that large cracks had been seen in the building the day before, and ordered their workers to return despite the danger.

The magnitude of the tragedy and the intimacy of the news coverage – especially the haunting images captured by Bangladeshi activist and photographer Taslima Akhter – were hard to ignore and cast a harsh light on the corporate supply chains that connect affluent consumers in countries like the United States with impoverished workers in the developing world. One of Akhter’s photos, showing the final embrace of a man and a woman crushed to death in the rubble, went viral and seemed to capture the meaning of the tragedy:

Final embrace

Time Magazine’s photography blog devoted a post to the image, and a quote from a leading Bangladeshi photographer and writer describes its power: “This image, while deeply disturbing, is also hauntingly beautiful. An embrace in death, its tenderness rises above the rubble to touch us where we are most vulnerable. By making it personal, it refuses to let go. This is a photograph that will torment us in our dreams. Quietly it tells us. Never again.” For a media moment at least, it seemed hard to ignore the idea that our clothes are indeed stitched with the blood of the poor.

But while such images clearly provoke a strong emotional reaction among people in the privileged classes, it is far from clear that the usual apocalyptic fantasies will translate into the sense of solidarity, responsibility and resolve necessary to challenge the deeply entrenched global economic inequality that inevitably produces such calamities. As the immediate shock and horror recede, there is a tendency to settle back into established patterns of thought. And the privileged are generally very good at finding ways to live with the emotional and moral stress of knowing that the systems from which they benefit cause grave suffering to distant others. Never underestimate the capacity of the powerful for denial, self-serving rationalization and feigned helplessness – all of which were at work even as the bodies were being removed from the rubble of the building in Bangladesh.

Denial

A Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1000 American adults conducted two weeks after the building collapse found that 35% had heard nothing about it, and 48% had heard only a little. But this kind of ignorance is hardly justifiable. Ignorance in the internet age, though perhaps a greater problem than ever, is in the West at least typically more a matter of willful denial than scarcity of information. Certainly the tragedy in Bangladesh was prominent enough in every major newsfeed that anyone even minimally wired into the news and infotainment infrastructure had to choose not to know, to click away to something lighter and less troubling. Yes, the giant media corporations encourage us to obsess about entertainment rather than news, vapid celebrity gossip and political hot air rather than critical thought. But you don’t have to passively accept what they push at you like a lamb sucking at a glowing glass teat. Google search will lead you to plenty of good information about the lives of those around the world who work at making our clothes. You can choose to use it instead to wallow in the latest Kardashian outrage, kitty videos, or porn. But that’s a choice to be ignorant, to seek out titillation and distraction to the exclusion of knowledge about our real moral connections in the world. Ignorance is no excuse.

Of course, it is possible to simply not care about the moral implications of your choices as a consumer. An overwhelming majority of respondents to the Huff/You Gov poll say they are much more motivated by the price of clothes than they are about the working conditions of the people who make them. One interpretation of this is that they simply do not care what happens to people around the world. I doubt that is true of many people. Willful ignorance and cruel indifference are the very definition of an asshole. I think most people would like to think better of themselves than that, so they typically try to justify themselves by claims that the system really is for the best, or that in any event nothing can be done to change it.

Rationalization

While even the most hard-hearted market fundamentalist would not want to see tragedies like the building collapse in Bangladesh, within days several commentators rushed to defend sweatshops. The day of the collapse, Matt Yglesias at Slate argued against calls for unified global safety standards, arguing that the poverty of workers in Bangladesh led them to understandably and appropriately accept much greater risks in the workplace than relatively prosperous American workers. Two days later, in response to the outrage his piece generated, Yglesias strongly qualified his argument, distinguishing between appropriate market driven differences in safety standards and what increasingly appeared to be a criminal violation of existing Bangledeshi safety laws. Alex Massie at the Spectator moved from the specific issue of workplace safety to in Bangladesh to a broader defense globalization and the growth of sweatshop manufacturing in poor countries. While he acknowledged that the tragedy perhaps called for some narrow improvements or at least better enforcement of safety standards in Bangladesh, he sharply warned that “western fastidiousness or guilt should not blind us to the fact that grim as they may be these sweatshops – and globalised capital – have been a force for good.”

But at Forbes, neo-liberal economist Benjamin Powell was unapologetic, blithely asking us to look up from the rubble to “the grand scheme of things,” arguing that in an impoverished country like Bangladesh such tragedies are entirely acceptable. Bangladeshi workers freely choose to work in dangerous conditions because they are desperately poor and the benefits to them of factory jobs far outweigh the risks. Safety will improve only after a rise in wages and the overall economic development of the country – which would be slowed or reversed by imposing safety regulations that would either come out of worker’s wages or drive up the cost of labor such that the factories will be closed. “Consumers who truly care about the welfare of Bangladeshi workers,” he concludes, “should encourage companies to source garments from the country, rather than abandon its factories.”

It is true, of course, that the growth of the manufacturing sector in developing countries over the past several decades of globalization has brought economic growth to countries that has been of real benefit to millions of the poorest of the world’s poor – a fact acknowledged by the likes of one of the leading critics of market fundamentalism Paul Krugman and global human rights advocate Nicholas Kristof. But to conclude from this that nothing can or should be done to try to improve conditions for these workers is more a self-serving rationalization of the economic interests of the affluent than a moral argument. Moreover, Powell’s claim that sweatshop reformers naively ignore the benefits of the growth of manufacturing jobs in developing countries is simply wrong. Leading groups working to fight global sweatshops (whom I have followed for decades) like the Worker’s Rights Consortium and the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights have never advocated simply pulling factories out of countries where sweatshop practices are entrenched, nor for imposing Western wage and safety standards that would drive industry away, but for constructive engagement with corporations and governments to establish contextually fair wages and working conditions.

In fact, a model for how this can work emerged from the international outrage over the Bangladesh tragedy in the form of an agreement signed by dozens of large European retailers to be part of an unprecedented legally binding safety plan that will require publicly reported independent safety inspections with an active role for workers and their unions, and obligate the retailers and brands to underwrite the costs of mandatory repairs and renovations and to terminate business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety upgrades. Though Powell and other sweatshop apologists have ignored it, the plan got unqualified praise praised from the Worker’s Rights Consortium, which said “This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh.” But most American retailers — most notably, Wal-Mart, which argued that its own efforts would be more effective, and Gap, which argued that the agreement makes them vulnerable to litigation – refused to sign the agreement.

More broadly, Powell’s notion that economic growth alone will lead to fair wages and improvements in safety is a gross simplification of history. Growth is certainly necessary, and may even be the driver of such reforms, but they have always been accompanied by long hard campaigns for justice by workers and their allies among middle class reformers.  And his claim that the preference of the desperately poor for work in sweatshops over the absolute misery of rural poverty represents a free choice makes a mockery of our deep traditions of liberty. Freedom cannot be reduced to market choice, especially in a market where bargaining power is so unevenly distributed. As Wendell Berry said, “rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”

But even if you are inclined to give this kind of neoliberal market fundamentalism more credence than I am, it does not amount to a brief for consumer disengagement. The corporate supply chains we consume from entangle us with the lives of the poor, and we have an obligation to think matters through, to critically examine the effect our consumption has on their lives as well as ours.  And as Kevin Carson argues, one of the things we should be examining is the constellation of forces that structure the world such that, for Bangladeshi workers, the best available option is a job in a sweatshop.

Despair

But I suspect that for most consumers the biggest barrier to moral engagement on the sweatshop issue is not the specious arguments of market fundamentalists, but uncritical pessimism. Though I have not been able to find any survey data to support this, my impression is that most consumers justify their ignorance and inaction by claiming that nothing they do can possibly make any real difference anyway. Certainly the impossibility of making individual choices or taking collective actions that will change entrenched social structures is a commonplace in popular discourse about a whole range of important social issues. Perhaps most distressingly, I find that this is the prevailing view among the undergraduate students I teach, who quickly grasp the complexity and gravity of social problems, but who are highly resistant to the idea that we can and thus should take individual and collective action to solve them. On the face of it, there is no reason to conclude this (though many educators I know are just as quick to reach this conclusion as their students). Everything we know about the persistent problem of sweatshops suggests that improvement will be difficult and may take a long time. But there is no evidence to conclude that it is impossible.

Here is the question I ask my students, and anyone else in the privileged classes I encounter repeating the mantra that “nothing can be done, nothing can be done:” How did you get to be that way? Objectively speaking, a person who can take a university class, buy new clothes at a shopping mall, or read a blog on the web is almost certainly part of one of the wealthiest, most politically empowered groups of people in the history of humanity. Yes, the significant differences of money and power among the privileged people of the United States and other affluent nations are not without consequence. But still, in the “grand scheme” of human history, anyone who can do these things is fabulously wealthy and privileged. And while our democracy certainly has flaws, we are ostensibly free as citizens to do and say what we like, to gather together as we deem necessary to exercise our rights as the only true sovereign power in our society. With all this,. how in the world have you come to believe that you are powerless? That you lack the ability to change the world for the better? This is not a rhetorical question, but something that requires a real explanation.

One explanation of course is that it is a self-serving dodge. We should be skeptical whenever the most powerful people in a given situation protest that they are powerless. What they may really be saying is that they are simply not willing to make the effort or sacrifice necessary for change. Here we have the cruel ignorance and indifference of the asshole who simply does not care, without the virtue of honesty.

But most people who feel powerless are I think sincere, and when pressed will give some good reasons for their pessimism. Among the best explanations is that the large, powerful corporate entities who benefit the most from the status quo have tight control over what kind of products make it to the marketplace, and what kind of information we can find about what we buy. Worse, they spend vast sums on advertising to stimulate our desire, and they would certainly rather keep us obsessing about our own inadequacies and the way buying their products can make us better than asking critical questions about the social conditions of their production. Under this mental barrage, it is no wonder that people feel disempowered.

What is particularly interesting about this line of argument is that it suggests that affluent consumers are in actual fact controlled and exploited by the same corporate forces that, at the other end of the supply chain, control and exploit poor workers in developing countries like Bangladesh. So to the degree that it is very difficult for us to know and care, let alone do anything about the exploitation of workers around the globe who make our clothes, we find cause for greater solidarity with those workers in that we struggle against some of the same forces. So it ultimately turns out that if we really want to be free and in control of our own lives, we have a strong common interest in the struggle of the world’s poor for freedom and self-determination.

I know how righteous and judgmental this all sounds. I understand that my claim about the historical power and privilege of the middle class in an affluent consumer society is absurdly abstract, and ignores the struggle that life really is for the people I blithely call privileged. Believe me, for all the wealth and privilege I know I enjoy, I feel the pressures and anxieties of trying to hold down an imperiled job in a shrinking market, of trying to pull free of the death spiral of debt, of somehow being present to the needs of my family. But every day that is filled only with our own fears, we die a little bit. I really do believe that the only way we can keep these pressures and anxieties from dominating us is by looking beyond ourselves to see how our problems and challenges are connected to the lives of others. Solidarity is the way out of the madness.

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