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We Shop, They Sweat: The Women Who Make Our Clothes

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To get to Molly and Angeline’s “sweatshop,” you had to climb seven flights of steep, concrete steps. It was a daunting task after a night of drinking and dancing in the Big Apple. But what I remember most about these late night climbs was not the gluteal burn, but the women still working in the garment factory on the sixth floor.


The girls jokingly nicknamed their loft “the sweatshop” because they didn’t think the cramped concrete room below them, filled with young foreign women sewing shirts, was one. But I’m not so sure. According to the Department of Labor, 50 percent of U.S. garment factories are sweatshops.  This could have been one of them.


A sweatshop, by Webster’s definition, is “a shop or factory in which employees work for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions.” Although they were common in the United States during the turn of the century, sweatshops were mostly eradicated as unions organized and labor practices improved. But they are no longer a thing of the past. Due to globalization and free trade, sweatshops are a common, if not prevalent, occurrence in countries with poor, exploitable labor.


Although this type of labor exists everywhere, including the United States, many transnational corporations seek out developing countries to sew their threads. With fewer governmental labor restrictions and an endless supply of desperate workers, large corporations are able to overlook human rights abuses by shipping them abroad.


Although proponents of free trade and globalization purport that multinational corporations provide jobs and a future to people that would otherwise not have any, exposés of factory conditions provide quite a different picture.


One such exposé is Micha Peled’s documentary China Blue. Shot clandestinely in a Chinese garment factory, it follows the journey of Jasmine, a teenage girl who leaves her rural home and finds employment in a denim garment factory that exports to overseas companies. Inside the factory, workers, most of them female, live twelve to a room, and work excruciatingly long hours. They suffer pay cuts for food, hot water, and leaving the compound. The women earn approximately 6 cents an hour and receive one paycheck every two months. The viewer is left wondering if these desperate young women are actually making any money at all.


Around the world, there are thousands of young women just like Jasmine. Feminists Against Sweatshops estimates that 90 percent of all sweatshop workers are women.  Both nationally and internationally, the young women that make our clothes are usually uneducated and unaware of their rights, a perfect set-up for exploitation. 


This exploitation has raised many corporate accountability issues. At first, it may be unclear who is to blame for inhumane and unfair labor practices: the multinational corporations or the sweatshops themselves. Upon closer examination, however, it becomes very clear that the large multinational corporations are at fault. The U.S. retail industry is highly competitive and companies search the world to look for the cheapest labor. Retailers put immense pressure on manufacturers to keep prices down and threaten to move their business elsewhere if they cannot. Since developing countries are eager for foreign investment, there is always a country that can underbid. These factors result in the unbelievably low wages and poor working conditions that are the hallmark of a sweatshop.


So what are we, the complicit American consumers, to do? Many of us try to be socially responsible, but how long would it take to research every article of clothing you want to purchase to ensure it isn’t sweatshop made? Or what if you plain forget about all the human rights abuses in the midst of a shopping flurry? I recently found myself walking out of a large discount department store, cheap shirts in hand. When I got home, I realized there was no way the cute shirt I bought for less than ten dollars was anything but sweatshop made.


So how can we make shopping without the sweatshop easier? By keeping in mind some very simple ideas:


•    Avoid the big boxes. The large purchasers have the large leveraging power that drives the unfair labor practices


•    Read the news. Lucky for us, unsavory corporate practices abroad often make the front page, so we can be savvy and avoid the delinquent brands


•    Look for Fair Trade: Coffee, tea, chocolate, and jewelry can now be purchased guilt-free


•    It’s not second hand, dahling, it’s vintage. Second hand clothes are a great way to reuse and recycle


•    Buy Local. Support a local business and get locally made items


None of us want to aid an industry that threatens the health and happiness of women throughout the world. Paying attention to how and where we shop is one small way we can try (with the occasional slip-up) to prevent this.

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