Sweatshops. Sounds kind’a nice as I watch the snow fall outside my window here in SLC, in April. Oh, to feel the sweat trickle down the small of my back and then slowly spread along my waistband front and back until it looks like I have thoroughly wet myself. Oh to feel a hard dirt floor with my blistered and cracked feet and to be able to gnaw on my swollen, spongy tongue longing for a cool drink of water. Instead I just sit here at my fancy computer typing away with a hot mug of tea watching this freekin’ frozen crap cling to my grapevines and tulips.
Surely I jest. But seriously, in my quest to discover the truth about global sweatshop numbers and stats I have discovered that this is an idiotic quest. Much more important are the numbers and factors that make sweatshops not only flourish, but attractive.
Wikipedia defines a sweatshop as “a working environment with unhealthy conditions that are considered by many people of industrialized nations to be difficult or dangerous, usually where the workers have few opportunities to address their situation. This can include exposure to harmful materials, hazardous situations, extreme temperatures, or abuse from employers. Sweatshop workers often work long hours for little pay, regardless of any laws mandating overtime pay or a minimum wage.
Sounds great, right? So what sort of madness causes these things to thrive around the world (even in the U.S.)? Simply put, greed and poverty. Nicholas Kristof raises a good point in his op-ed for the NYTimes from last year. Sweatshops are real nice options for people who would otherwise live and work in a garbage village. Hmmm. So what you are saying, Nick, is that while sweatshops suck, poverty is a bit broader and can suck even more?
A study done by the Wold Bank shows that in 2005 20% of the world’s population lived in what is considered extreme poverty, on just $1.25 a day. Around 50% live on $2.50 or less a day. If we stretch it to $10 a day we can include 80% of the world’s population. This, ladies and gentlemen is poverty. Estimates say that around 12% of those living in the United States fall below the national poverty line.
The real bummer is that, like most of us, I enjoy the things that poverty makes for me. I have a connection with my mug. I like my computer and all the rest of the stuff cluttering my desk. Even though I like not to think about it, I know that most of it was made by people living off of jack-crap and a cracker. Heaven forfend, some of the crafters of my crap probably labor for a sweatshop.
So how can we combat sweatshops when so many people around the world would leap out of their garbage pile for such a swanky job? Well, first of all, we have to share. My two-year old gets it most of the time. Forget the complicated economic systems and formulas. If something is “mine,” then it ain’t “yours.”
Secondly, it is time to realize that low, low prices usually means low, low morals. When I spend $39 for a DVD player several people just got screwed in that transaction. When I spend $29 for a pair of jeans a bunch of people just got paid a fraction of a penny for their labor. Crap, I know! Sharing sometimes means we have to play fair when we use our purchasing power here in the States. And the real stick in the eye is that I have to bother to search out commercial goods that help me share when I buy them! Fair wage they call it. Sweatshop-free labor.
But it’s true. We live in such a screwed up world that it is our responsibility as consumers to ensure that we don’t get the best price on a product, but that we share our surplus wealth with those who need it. This is one case when buying can be saving. By buying socially-aware goods we can save human lives, dignity and health by freely offering up what we can afford to live without when we are buying the things we choose to live with.