According to The Guardian, an anonymous senior employee from a high-end retailer claimed that shoppers would rather pay less than acknowledge the working conditions of those employed to create the merchandise. Which—let’s be honest—doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch from the truth. Most of us jump at a sale—especially when it is for something that we deem to be of high quality. The problem is that the cheaper something seems to be, the more likely it is that it came from questionable sources—and sometimes, even the more expensive items making their way to the west from China can have a horror story behind them.
Let’s be realistic with ourselves for a minute and really think about the process. Even if we boycotted buying “made in a place where workers are treated horribly” clothing, you still have to think about the whole process. The tragedy at Rana Plaza in 2013 made many of us sit up and take notice of the people making our clothing—but what about before the clothing is made? Who cleans the cotton—who picks it? Who spins it into yarn? Who dyes the material before it ever reaches the factory where it is sewn together? Which begs the question—how can we, as shoppers, change if we don’t have access to all of the information? How can we assure that our clothing is made ethically? One thing that we can start doing is boycotting what we do know about, which is a start, and start buying locally. And if you aren’t sure how you feel about shelling out a little more for clothing, consider the following cases:
10. Child labour in Uzbekistan
Thanks to the Environmental Justice Foundation’s (EJF) report entitled White Gold, which focused on the exploitative nature of the cotton industry, the western world has somewhat tuned into the issues existing in the garment industry. The good news is that, as a result, child labour has been banned in Uzbekistan, the fifth largest cotton producer in the world. The bad news is that, as of 2014, children are still being employed, albeit illegally. Additionally, since children can no longer be employed without consequence, many adults are being forced into the industry, which is morphing a child labour problem into a forced labour problem.
9. Nike employees mistreated
While Nike has often faced issues in regards to the working conditions present in the factories of their suppliers, the global brand has made efforts to regulate and improve the treatment of the people that create their products. But in 2011, after Nike acquired shoe company Converse (2003), a report made its way to the Associated Press, claiming that the people working in the factories where they make the classic high top were being mistreated—both emotionally and physically. The factory, located in Sukabumi, Indonesia, employs about 10,000 people—some of which have made complaints of being called “dogs” or “pigs,” and who have had to face abuse such as loss of employment for being sick, standing under the hot sun for hours after failing to finish an order and being kicked. Nike admitted to knowing about the abuse, and is working to remedy the situation.
8. Foxconn’s employees committing suicide
While the riots at Foxconn’s factory in China may have been what initially captured the media’s attention, it is the closer look at the working conditions within the factory that are a little more than shocking. In 2012, 2,000 workers stopped working to protest the alleged beating of a worker by a guard (resulting in about 40 injured)—but the real issue seems to be the amount of suicides that have occurred at the factory, which operates using live-in employees. Out of 18 attempted suicides in 2010, 14 died. The company, which employs over 800,000 people across China alone, makes products for Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.
7. Protesters held captive
After their family farm was demolished to make way for an airport, Xie Jinghua and her husband decided to travel from Shanghai to Beijing to protest the settlement that they were given in exchange for losing their home at the 10-day annual meeting of China’s legislature in March 2012. Once they had arrived, the couple was apprehended by plain-clothes police officers and returned to Shanghai, where they were held captive, separately, at a Holiday Inn Express. When Xie Jinghua tried to escape, she was held down on a bed by the officers, who held the blanket over her to keep her from moving (she escaped by stealing a room key). Three other people have come forward to claim that they too were detained for the span of the meeting, where, according to CNN, individuals are given the right to air objections. The Holiday Inn Express, which is owned by the Intercontinental Hotels Group, denies any of these allegations, but the outcry of the citizens has captured the attention of the media, and has increased awareness about these “black jails.”
6. Plea for help from Chinese labor camp worker
Oregon resident Julie Keith was simply opening a package of Halloween decorations from Kmart when she discovered a mysterious letter in the packaging. According to The New York Times, the letter read “Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization,” followed by a page long description of the factory conditions. The letter, whose writer has since been discovered (Now free of the labour camp, he has only provided the name “Zhang” to the media in order to avoid persecution.), is one of 20 that the worker wrote while he was an inmate at the Masanjia labour camp in the Liaoning province of China. The camp, which has referred to itself as a re-education center, is only one of many that provide goods to the Western world. Despite being asked, executives from Sears Holdings Inc. a.k.a. the owners of the Kmart stores, were not available for an interview to discuss the letter.
5. The handwritten message
After she bought a pair of boots from Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Australian native Stephanie Wilson reached into her shopping bag to look at her receipt. Instead of a bill of sale, she pulled out a hand-written letter from a Chinese labourer by the name of Tohnain Emmanuel Njong. According to BBC, the note, which included a photo of the man, read “We are ill-treated and work like slaves for 13 hours every day producing these bags,” and went on to ask if someone could let his family know of his whereabouts. Wilson passed the letter to the Laogai Research Foundation, who where unable to track down the individual. The good news? A man purportedly came forth via social media to identify himself, and claims to have been released from the labour camp without incident.
4. A cry for help
After purchasing a pair of pants at department store Primark almost three years before, Karen Wisínska pulled them out of her closet while packing for a trip (the pants had not been worn due to a broken zipper). In one of the pant pockets she found a letter wrapped around a prison identity card, with SOS scrawled across the top. She couldn’t translate the rest of the letter, so she posted it to Facebook, only to realize that it was a cry for help. According to the BBC, part of the letter read “We work for 15 hours each day. What we eat is even worse than food for pigs and dogs. The work we do is similar to (the hard work) that oxen and horses do.” With the insistence of Amnesty International, Primark has stated that they will look into the matter.
3. Hidden message from a factory worker
As of 2014, two Primark shoppers (one from Wales, the other from Northern Ireland) had found extra labels sewn into their bargain dresses, next to the care instructions. According to The Guardian, the first read “Forced to work exhausting hours,” while the second read “Degrading sweatshop conditions.” The labels, which contained individually embroidered words, are intricate, and would be easy to miss if you weren’t looking for them. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell if these tags are actually real. Unlike the letters that have been found, they cannot be validated, which means there is a possibility that the intricate labels may be a hoax.
2. Five workers signed a letter to Steve Jobs
In 2011, 137 workers employed at the now bankrupt Chinese contractor Wintek, located in Suzhou, China, became seriously sick. Five workers, including, Jia Jingchuan, signed a letter to Steve Jobs of Apple, demanding adequate compensation, and protection to those who have accepted compensation (the contractor allegedly made workers sign documents giving up their jobs, while offering those who may become sick no medical coverage). The reason workers were getting sick? N-Hexane, a cleaning chemical (which is also a narcotic) that is capable of harming the central nervous system, causing numbness and even paralysis. The good news? Apple acknowledged the letter sent to them, and as of 2014, Apple had banned the use of chemical agents in its factories.
1. Clothing factory collapses
Workers took to the streets of Dhaka in Bangladesh to protest the loss of over 1,100 people when the Rana Plaza, an 8-storey clothing factory, collapsed, killing hundreds of people and injuring countless others. The garment factory, which creates clothing for companies like Primark, Benetton, H&M and The Child’s Place (to name only a few), tumbled to the ground due to shoddy construction. The place had not been inspected properly, and the problems with the integrity of the building had been overlooked in favour of producing clothing quickly and cheaply. The collapse of the building resulted in a considerable amount of publicity for the workers, making many people in the western world that much more aware of the conditions of the workers on the other side of the world. Today, in 2015, over $6 million in compensation is still owed to the workers.