When we (by and large) stopped having sweatshops in the United States, sweat shops didn’t disappear, they just relocated. Today our clothes come from countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, and they’re still made under the horrific working conditions that caused things like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a century ago. Our clothing is still made using child labor and working hours much longer than we would consider humane. Even though we like to think we are, we’re not really any better than our fore-bearers—we’ve just put our own slave labor at a distance where we can ignore it.
Last week, as I’m sure you’ve heard, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing well over 300 of the workers inside. When I heard about it I thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire immediately, but I also thought of a scene from a Doctor Who episode, Planet of the Ood.
Planet of the Ood is set in the year 4126 A.D., in a future when humans have spread out across the galaxy. In the episode the Doctor and Donna Noble investigate Ood Operations and learn that the alien servants the company was selling were actually slaves, mutilated to be servile. At one point the following conversation happens between the Doctor and Donna:
Donna Noble: A great big empire, built on slavery…
The Doctor: It’s not so different from your time.
Donna Noble: Oy! I haven’t got slaves!
The Doctor: Who d’you think made your clothes?
This scene has been bothering me ever since I first watched the episode last fall, and the recent tragedy in Bangladesh has brought it back to the front of my mind. There’s so much truth to what the Doctor says in that exchange that it almost hurts to think about it. The trouble is, I don’t know what I can do to set things right.
I could stop buying clothing new, and instead shop solely at thrift stores and consignment shops. But the trouble with that, beside the fact that I’m only one person, is that the people who take jobs in garment factories in places like Bangladesh often do so because they don’t have any better alternatives, which means that shutting those factories might actually in practice make their lives worse. The most effective way to solve the problem might be to create better economic opportunities in the areas where these sweat shops are located, giving the workers more choice in where to work and forcing the garment factory owners to improve the working conditions in their factories if they want to keep any workers. So it might be that the real way to help fix things is to donate money to programs that help bring education to third world countries. Of course, giving up buying clothing new isn’t a bad idea—it might at the very least salve my seared conscience.
What are your thoughts? What do you do try to offset our reliance on goods made in dangerous factories under inhumane working conditions?