Michelle Teheux: Count me out of the slave trade
It’s so easy to look back at less enlightened times and wonder how people could have been a part of something so wrong.
Slavery used to be thought perfectly OK by a large percentage of the population. Men could beat their wives and children all they wanted and it was nobody’s business. Young children worked long hours instead of attending school.
You won’t find many people today defending any of these past practices.
But what will our descendants a few generations from now say about us?
I think they’ll have something to say about our willingness to profit from virtual slaves in other countries.
While we’ve grown squeamish about subjugating other humans in such a way that we have to see their suffering, we are a lot more comfortable with other humans working in outlandish conditions to benefit us as long as we don’t have to see them.
I was uncomfortably reminded of this Sunday night when my husband and I watched “China Blue,” a documentary about the conditions endured by workers making blue jeans in a Chinese factory.
Ironically, just hours before, we had purchased a pair of jeans for $10.
When you think about the cost of raising the cotton, spinning the thread, weaving the cloth, cutting out the patterns, buying buttons and zippers, sewing the pants, shipping the product and then realize that in every step along the way, somebody has to make a profit, one cannot be surprised at how little the workers make for their efforts. The 20 to 25 people involved in making a pair of jeans together earn about one dollar or less.
In other words, if I had paid even $11 for that pair of jeans, the workers could have earned twice as much money.
Buying more expensive jeans doesn’t mean the workers made any more money, however. You can buy very expensive jeans and still have no assurance that the workers made anything approaching a fair wage. It just means bigger profits for the companies involved.
One can find sources online that will sell jeans at reasonable prices — some even made by American workers. (In fact, several possibilities are listed on the web site for the documentary at www.pbs.org/independentlens/chinablue/more.html). The question is why all our retailers cannot offer us the chance to buy goods that were made by workers making fair wages. Shoppers do want low prices, but that hardly means we demand our goods be made by slaves.
It would be nice if businesses would do the right thing for reasons of morality, but businesses generally make decisions based almost totally on the bottom line. That is their reason for being, after all. A business that doesn’t make money doesn’t last. But a business that cannot stay in business except by enslaving human beings doesn’t deserve to last.
If you could choose between spending $10 to buy slave-made goods or $11 for goods made by people paid living wages, which would you put into the cart?
Efforts to inspect foreign factories have been a farce, with workers being coached what to say during the short visits by observers. Perhaps American companies should insist their contracts give them the right to observe the workplace for much longer periods of time. It’s easy to fake good conditions and hours for a day, but if the observers kept to their posts for weeks on end, the truth of the matter would be apparent.
It’s a complicated issue, but not one that is impossible to solve — if we care enough to try.
Michelle Teheux may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.