January 30, 2007

The Story of Our T-shirts

When we throw on our T-shirts, we rarely ever think about all the elements of this piece of garment. Who made it? Where did it come from? If we do ever think about our T-shirts, most us think about how cool we look based on what’s scribbled across the front: “Chicago Bulls,” "I [Heart] NY,” or “Life Sucks” or “I Hate Bush.”

In the nineties, socially conscious college students often gave thought to their T-shirts. Led on by the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) anti-sweatshop and anti-child labor movements, they would protest outside libraries, inside student unions, and write fiery letters to Wal-Mart executives to stop buying clothes from poor countries.

By the 2000s, the crescendo over child labor and working conditions in the apparel factories of poor countries like Bangladesh seemed to have calmed down, partly because many things in America operate on a "aajke ase, kaalke nai" basis, i.e. "here today, gone tomorrow", and partly because some apparel companies actually started paying closer attention to labor standards in order to avoid getting lampooned into oblivion. But the issue hasn’t disappeared altogether, and could come back to town any time for another party.

Throughout the protests in American colleges, throughout the political roller-coaster rides in Bangladesh, and pushing through years of economic plight, Bangladesh continued to make T-shirts. Lots of them. Thanks to our excess supply of workers who are often willing to embrace wearisome manufacturing jobs, our easy access to garment materials, pretty decent industry management, and other factors, the Bangladeshi garment industry has flourished and has gained a strong foothold in the country.

The industry now brings in billions of dollars, supplies 75 percent of our export earnings, provides the livelihoods of 2 million young women, and is generally a sunny spot in the country economy.

Yet, few people in the West want to see the Bangladeshi garment industry in this light, and chosen to forget the early economy of the United States when child labor was considered a necessity, and factory conditions weren’t exactly dandy.

Some have even launched bizarre “Buy USA” consumer campaigns, pretending that any Western country could, for a second, compete to make T-shirts with any low-wage country where throngs of hungry workers clamor for T-shirt-making jobs to avoid getting pulled into a drilling workshop or into the sex industry. Yes, we are talking about those familiar low-wage countries where people live on less than $2 a day, there is no welfare, no social safety net, and no Democrats to argue for entitlement programs.

Perhaps that is why, in spite of vigorous efforts to shield U.S. apparel-making jobs from poor countries with the help of a quota regime, the numbers of U.S. apparel workers have shrank from 1.4 million to 270,000.

We should, of course, work towards a Bangladesh where young members of families who are below 12 or 14 would no longer need to go to work, and respect for human rights would run through people’s veins. But in the meantime, those of us in the U.S. of A and other Western places who may find ourselves in casual conversations with friends on this topic, need to tell those well-intentioned friends that their efforts are much better spent persuading companies to improve factory conditions, rather than persuading them to stop buying clothes from very poor nations.

At least many of the friends I’ve spoken to, have stopped peeking at T-shirt labels before making buying decisions.


Malina said...
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Malina said...

Looks like some US policymakers are already headed in the wrong direction on this. Please write letters to Sens Graham, Sanders and Dorgan to explain that this is the wrong solution to the problem:

January 24, 2007
"Bill targets U.S. companies profiting from sweatshops"
By James Rosen
WASHINGTON | A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday aimed at preventing American companies from profiting from the use of foreign sweatshops and other unfair labor practices abroad. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joined four Democrats and independent Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont in sponsoring a bill that would allow U.S. firms to sue competitors that they believe are selling imported products made in overseas sweatshops.
Read more here: