It's Better to Have a Job Than No Job... But It's Not That Simple

CC BY 2.0. ILO in Asia & the Pacific -- A garment worker at a factory in Sri Lanka

Just because garment workers are desperate doesn't mean we should exploit them.

When new CrossFit training shoes were launched last year, I watched a short video about them. It was a glitzy marketing pitch, focusing on the ‘cutting edge technology’ and ‘innovative design’, but there was no mention about production methods and where or how the shoes were made. When I pointed this out to a friend, expressing my concerns about the notorious conditions in shoe factories overseas and lamenting a lost opportunity for CrossFit to embrace ethical production, he shrugged and said, “Isn’t it better for people to have a job, even if it’s bad?”

His reaction is not uncommon. Many privileged Westerners prefer not to take responsibility for the wellbeing of the poverty-stricken laborers who make our clothes and shoes for mere pennies in unsafe factories far away. It’s easier to ignore their plight and justify our lack of action by reassuring ourselves that “at least they have jobs.”

In a way, yes, it is better to work than not to work, but oversimplification is dangerous in this situation. It would take so little to make a huge difference in the conditions, wages, hours, and benefits of most garment workers, and yet companies do not bother.

They continue to move their manufacturing facilities to the cheapest countries in the world, where the minimum wage is next to nothing or not even legislated, where the government turns a blind eye to the widespread suffering of workers because it wants the development, the infrastructure, the exports.

Companies get away with dilapidated buildings and rampant fires in the garment factories and high death tolls because the doors are locked “to prevent theft”. Families are separated because parents work such long hours with so little time off that children are better off with relatives, or, worse yet, are sent to work themselves. Workers have no union rights, no medical care, no maternity leaves. Many live hand-to-mouth on a daily basis, suffering from exhaustion and stress, lacking the dignity that every worker should be afforded.

Ethical fashion bloggers Ellie Kirkland and Elizabeth Carroll put it well in a post called “Job or No Job?” They write:

“Something may be better than nothing, but when that something isn’t good enough, and when it’s in our power to improve it, we have a moral obligation to do better… Just because people are desperate isn’t an excuse to exploit them.”

What many consumers in North America don’t realize is that companies would only have to increase the cost (or decrease the profits) of their garment items by mere pennies in order to improve drastically the worker conditions in countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia.

Kirkland and Carroll cite Elizabeth Cline’s insightful book, Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, which I also read several years ago. (You can read a summary here.) Cline explains that garment workers overseas are still only earning about 1 percent of the retail price of the clothing they produce.

“The Worker Rights Consortium has found that it would take as little as 10 cents per garment to make necessary improvements to Bangladesh’s 4,500 factories. [In fact] the Worker Rights Consortium has found that garment worker wages could be doubled or even tripled with little or no increase to the American consumers.”

Is there a solution?

The closest thing to fixing the problem is to choose carefully when shopping for clothes. Redirecting dollars to ethical producers sends a message to conventional garment companies that their approach to business is unacceptable. You also won’t feel guilty for spending money on clothes made by workers who are practically enslaved.

The good news is that, while ethical fashion may be more expensive than conventional fast fashion, you’ll get higher quality items that hold their shape and last far longer. To start, you can find lots of fabulous, caring companies on Kirkland and Carroll's blog Dress Well, Do Good; under the Sustainable Fashion tab on TreeHugger; and on Cline's website.

Needless to say, I didn’t buy new CrossFit shoes. I wasn’t comfortable forking out a pile of money to a company that would only tell me who uses their shoes, not who made them. I’m still wearing the same old pair I’ve had for years and, once they wear out, will begin my search for ethical runners.

(See what happens in this eye-opening documentary series when three fashion-loving Norwegian teenagers are sent to work in a Cambodian sweatshop to see how it is for themselves.)