Friday, 10 May 2013

UPDATED Sweatshops: How do we Rid Ourselves of Them?

October 2015

While this topic should be on our minds at all time, with Christmas (and retail's high season) right around the corner, I thought it was time we revisited the issue of how we support proper work environments for the millions working in 3rd world country sweatshops.  While progress has been made, sadly, with only 2 Canadian and slightly more than 20 US companies working to end the continuing cycle of poverty, it would seem most of us are happy to continue the practice of supporting corporations that care little about the human cost tied to their profit margin.  Or, at least, this is the number that has willingly entered into the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Safety. An independent, legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions, the accord is designed to enable a working environment in which no worker needs to fear fires, building collapses or other accidents that can easily be prevented.  

Just In case you still aren't listening, here are a few facts about sweatshops that perhaps you didn't know:
  1. A sweatshop is defined by the US Department of Labour as a factory that violates 2 or more labor laws;
  2. They have poor working conditions, unfair wages, unreasonable hours, child labour; lack worker benefits;
  3. An estimate 168 MILLION children, ages 5-14 work in sweatshops throughout developing countries;
  4. Most countries in the industrialized world are not free of sweatshops;
  5. Common products coming from sweatshops include garmets, cotton, brick, cocoa and coffee;
  6. Consumers willing to pay 15% more to know a product did not come from a sweatshop will double the salary of a sweatshop employee;
  7. Those forced to work in a sweatshop spend the majority of their paycheck on food for their families;
  8. Child labour is especially common in the agricultural sector, primarily in Asia and the Pacific. Sub-Saharan African has the highest prevalence, with 20% of children in child labour;
  9. Because women make up 85-90% of sweatshop workers, some employees force their female staff to take birth control and routine pregnancy tests to avoice supporting maternity leave or providing health benefits.
How can you help?  One way to help foreign workers is to make conscious buying decisions and encourage retailer to provide conscious options. At the bottom of this blog you will find links to help you learn how to avoid supporting this type of facility, thereby helping to break the cycle.

Sweatshops are work environments that possess three major characteristics—long hours, low pay, and unsafe or unhealthy working conditions. Sweatshops have been a factor in the production of goods around the world for centuries, but the globalization of business has led to increasing numbers of major corporations taking advantage of low-cost  labor in developing countries.

Will sweatshops ever be abolished or will we continue to turn a blind eye and support them, as is evident in numerous recent examples in the apparel industry brought to international attention by castastrophic events?   The recent factory collapse in Bangladesh brought Superstore's Joe Fresh line to the forefront; but so far, Loblaw is the only company that has publicly admitted to carrying items made in the collapsed factory but what about all the others?  Companies like Sears Canada, Reitman, The Gap, Liz Claiborne, Kathie Lee Gifford, Nike, and Wal-Mart all market goods produced in sweatshops.

And what about the responsibility each one of us has?  How do we avoid supporting this type of activity and working environment?  While a very low price may be an indicator, it isn't always.  While we can inspect the name of the country printed on the label, we can't assume all products made in a third world country are the product of a sweat shop.  Using Bangladesh as an example, there are compliant manufacturers in these countries just as there is non-compliant, grossly negligent manufacturers.

Here's as good a place as anywhere to start: is a website designed to help us find safe, healthy, green & ethical products based on scientific ratings.  Led by Professor Dara O'Rourke of UC Berkeley, GoodGuide's science team – chemists, toxicologists, nutritionists, sociologists, and lifecycle analysis experts – rates products and companies on their health, environmental and social performance.  GoodGuide's 0 to 10 rating system helps consumers quickly evaluate and compare products.

Here's a few more tips:

As with anything else that is important, we not only have the choice, we have a responsibility not to turn away, but to take the time to educate ourselves so that we can make informed choices. . . . after all, we always have a choice -- we can be part of the problem, or part of the solution.  Which one do you want to be?