For more than two decades, more and more Americans have become aware of the exploitation and violence associated with much of the globalized garment industry producing more than 95 percent of our clothes. A series of media exposures, including the 1996 revelation that TV host Kathy Lee Gifford had endorsed a clothing line produced by Honduran children in sweatshop conditions, spurred a growing consciousness of labor abuses in many countries.
These exposures highlighted the persistent use of child labor, the absence of living wages that could sustain a decent livelihood for millions of workers, and the prevalence of unsafe working conditions. The latter issue was thrust dramatically into public awareness by the collapse in April, 2013 of Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in Dhaka, Bangladesh that housed a number of garment companies supplying brands like Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, and the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. The collapse of the building, which many workers had warned was unsafe, killed 1,139 workers and injured 2,500 more.
Although many of the major brands made public commitments to rectify such abuses, they continue to shed direct responsibility by contracting with local suppliers and subcontractors in different countries. They can easily move from country to country, supplier to supplier, to keep prices competitive while exerting downward pressure on workers’ wages and working conditions.
This dynamic, too, has gained media attention along with the abuses themselves. TV satirist John Oliver focused on it last year in a segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” while filmmaker Andrew Morgan devoted an entire documentary, The True Cost, to exposing the system and its detrimental effects on millions of people. Both Oliver and Morgan unveiled visual evidence of profound inequity, yet exploitation and deprivation persist while fashion industry executives have become some of the wealthiest people on the planet (e.g. Stefan Persson of H&M worth $28 billion; Amancio Ortega of Zara worth $57 billion).
Many consumers who become aware of these problems are left with uncertainty as to a responsible course of action. Some have begun to look to fair trade certification as an answer, seeking out businesses that promise adherence to ethical labor and environmental standards. Yet considering the vast preponderance of garments manufactured by major brands, a number of critics argue that for the 40 million garment workers worldwide, a more comprehensive, sector-wide approach is needed.
One possible beginning step for individuals is a basic one: moving beyond the identity of “ethical consumer” to embrace the broader, more responsive identity of global citizen. The former is still closely identified with the products we choose, the latter with an awareness of the social relations defined by a globalized capitalist economy. As a more encompassing term, citizenship entails a responsibility for continuing self-education no matter what one’s stage of life may be.
From this perspective, it may well be worth one’s while to visit the websites of organizations like the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. These umbrella organizations represent broad coalitions of trade unions and human rights organizations, and their response to the issues is political. They engage in advocacy, lobbying, and public education to support garment workers’ rights (including freedom of association and union representation) across the national boundaries that transnational corporations so easily traverse. The Asia Floor Wage Alliance makes a crucial distinction between the legal minimum wage in many of the producing countries and a living wage that enables workers to support themselves and their families with dignity. And these organizations offer ways that individuals can help take a stand in solidarity with workers, including (on the Clean Clothes website) a link that provides information on the corporate behavior of specific labels.
It may be objected that with so many American jobs already lost overseas, our focus should stay squarely on retaining and growing jobs here at home. Yet the garment industry is itself a prime example of outsourcing; it wasn’t very long ago that most of the clothes purchased in the U.S. were made by American workers. The same global economics affecting the welfare of workers in Bangladesh or Cambodia affect the welfare of workers here.
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from Birmingham, Alabama, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” If he had written those words today from Dhaka or Mumbai, Phnom Penh or Jakarta, they’d ring as true now as they ever did.