Thoughts on Sweat Shops in the Third World

It’s time for a little guilt. You wear imported clothing and shoes and carry a tote or backpack. You probably don’t think twice about where they are produced. You take everything in life for granted. Now is the time to realize the greedy economics of the garment industry. Imagine 15 year old girls sitting at rows of sewing machines in the idle of the night making your favorite brand’s shirts and pants. Their eyes are tired and the light is poor. The sweat shop runs 24/7 and this shift is the hardest.

Haiti, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Mexico, Cambodia, Honduras, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nepal, South Korea, Taiwan, Nicaragua… Stacks of finished apparel are awaiting packing for shipment. Stock boys about the same age are loading boxes onto trucks. Their little arms strain with effort. A stern taskmaster keeps productivity to a maximum. While there are small rewards for meeting quotas, there are punishments for lagging behind. Breaks are few and far between and coffee or tea is simply not an option. There are no OSHA safety rules posted on the wall. Maybe a first aid kit at best.

Such is the life of thousands of the majority of third world workers who make fashion for your pleasure. While common in many countries, even the US (think Chinatown), these sweat shops are unacceptable work places with minimal standards. Don’t even expect child labor laws! There is modern electronic equipment such as the perennial sewing machine. Some are designed for specific tasks like button holes or zippers, so that there is division of labor. There are also plenty of embroidery machines to stitch that little guy on a horse or alligator onto your shirt. It is efficient, but often back breaking work. Many of the youth also do handwork with expertise that is admirable for ones so young.

Sweat factories turn out designer copies galore, so they are a valuable asset for local economies. Forget about ethics! I hate to even mention the possibility of human trafficking to staff these places. This is not an ideal lot in life, even for the poor who need base wages. Yes, it costs less to live in the third world, but this kind of child labor is also exploitative to a high degree. There is a lot of controversy in this regard as people realize that no other jobs are forthcoming for many parts of the world. It is indeed possible that the standard of living has been raised with export work as compared to subsistence farming and the specter of crime. Starvation is a dirty word that must be considered to be fair.

So next time you don that logo sweatshirt or take out those designer jeans, give at least a moment’s thought to what went into their fabrication. You may feel so bad that you want to make your own clothes! Be sure to check labels and read about conditions in factories and sweat shops so you understand the consequences of your purchasing decisions. Part of being green these days is to shun the moral pollution of the sweat shop. With enough publicity and outcry, conditions should get better and make the clothing industry a viable option for local labor.