I recently read an article on distressed denim (OK stay with me here…) and that Chinese workers are being subjected to unsafe work practices to make these materials. Every time that I see an article like this the tone is always the same: OMIGOSH MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS PILLAGE AND PLUNDER POORER NATIONS!! It is a scary thought that companies may use workers who are poor and underprivileged in order to produce what they need, but really, it is concerning that news outlets continue to sell these stories as though they are new, as though we are surprised by these things happening in the world around us.
The reality is that they are happening and they will continue to happen in the future, and not much is going to stop it. I look at protesters for workers rights saying that sweatshops should be outlawed, that all workers should have the right to make a living without being put in danger and that is fair enough. However, companies want to make a profit (that is what they are set up to do, believe it or not), so they cut corners in manufacturing.
Think about what you would want to be paid for an hours work on a sewing machine, then factor in your costs, the companies overheads (property rental, insurance, raw materials, transport) and then look at the bottom dollar that the item is sold for on the shelves. At a Westerners wage, $100 for a pair of jeans means that a company will lose out on profit, so everything else being the same, the only choice is to drop the price of labour.
Now look at the protesters, at the need to make money to keep a business afloat, and then look at consumer driven economies. News media loves to point and laugh at the people who line up for hours at Black Friday and Boxing Day sales, but they are part of the same (complex) problem. If consumers are more likely to but products at dirt cheap prices, then manufacturers need to attempt to meet that need.
There are arguments that companies needn’t make so much money, that they could cut their profit margins, but can we really pull moralistic rank on how someone should run their company? By no means am I saying that the use of cheap labour is right, I am merely saying that it is logical.
Another sad reality is that we constantly look at how people in other countries are exploited and tut and wave our fingers, but many nations (looking at you Australia and USA) are based on the presumption that if a more powerful race/party/person wants something, they will take it (I am of course referring to the displacement of Indigenous populations). It is not only a hallmark of commercialism and capitalism that exploits people, it is a hallmark of being human. If you have never negotiated for a better contract, if you have never shopped around for the best price for a product, or negotiated the price of a service, then you may not understand this. This shows that as humans we are predisposed to making sure that we we own stays ours, that our bottom line is great and if not great, then at least not worse than our current situation.
Being a part of this world, requires an understanding of a lot of things, one of those things is this – Life has suffering. We make ourselves suffer, we make others suffer on a daily basis, yet we rail against it with all our might. The outcome that we are seeking is comfort, not for others, but for ourselves. Rallying against another’s discomfort is no more than falling into a trap of externalising our own feelings of discomfort at seeing another suffer, not a true desire to make the other not suffer at all.