Monday, March 23, 2015

When is That "Great Deal" Not So Great?

I've written before (for example, here) about the difficulty in buying ethically-sourced clothing. Most of us don't have our clothes made by local tailors from cloth woven in local (regularly inspected!) factories from fabric grown organically and sustainably. 

So we take a lot on faith. Even those of us who read labels (most of the time), are unsure: Is "Made in Cambodia" better or worse than "Made in Bangladesh"? Is cotton grown in Egypt better or worse than cotton grown in India? 

Because of disasters like the factory fires in Bangladesh and Pakistan in 2012 and 2013, and the Bangladeshi factory collapse in 2013, reminded us that a lot of human suffering and rule-bending (and, usually, rule-breaking) goes into making that cute $9.99 blouse. But Bangladesh and Pakistan are far away, and our memories are short.

Yesterday, Salon republished a Global Post article on how little has changed. As reporter Patrick Winn writes:

Americans have reason to cringe over the sad conditions forced on Cambodian clothing makers. The United States is the top destination for "Made in Cambodia" clothes. Major brands such as Gap, Marks & Spencer and Adidas all rely on Cambodians to stitch their clothing.

Outlets such as H&M can sell hoodies for as little as $25 because Cambodian women (almost all the workers are women) will sew for roughly 50 cents per hour.

Cambodia's clothing factories are notoriously unpleasant. They're hot and loud. Workers routinely flop on the floor in mass fainting episodes. Last year, strikes for better pay were crushed by authorities who shot dozens dead.

And yet half a million Cambodians work in this sector -- namely because the main alternative, toiling in rice paddies, can be even worse.

Winn references a Human Rights Watch report, "Work Faster or Get Out" (available here). Cambodian labor laws are routinely flouted, and brands have taken actions that make it harder to conduct inspections.

Do you still wonder why I'm such a strong proponent of regulation and verification? The poor are routinely exploited because they can be. Cambodian women will work for 50 cents per hour because their other options are worse. And no, 50 cents / hour is not a living wage in Cambodia. Cambodia agreed in November of last year to raise garment workers' minimum wage to $128 / month, less than the $140 / month sought, but above the $120 / month poverty level. You do the math to see how many hours a month you have to sew at 50 cents / hour if you are trying to get to $128. Not to mention that the minimum wage does not equal a living wage.

The "Market" cannot be relied on to do the right thing. There will always be people willing to do the wrong thing for greater profit for themselves.