Many of us were probably shocked when we heard about the horrific and deadly fire at a garment factory in Bangladesh. Over 750 people were killed. To add to the sadness, another fire in a Bangladesh factory killed eight more workers. It brings to light what most of us ignore – most of our products are made by very low wage earners in conditions that would be considered an outrage if they took place in the United States. But reality soon sets in, and we go on with our lives. We don’t change anything that we do, and our inaction only perpetuates the cycle. So instead of simply reporting on the event, I’d like to offer seven ideas on how you can help to combat sweatshops.
1. BARE IT ALL. Organize and participate in a local event to protest the dangerous conditions of garment workers. Students at the University of Texas did just that. They wore nothing but cardboard boxes. They contacted the local media and spread the word.
2. LAUNCH AN ONLINE PETITION, and then hand deliver the completed petition to your federal legislator’s office. Ask for their help in getting a report filed with the Department of Labor demanding that American companies must provide safe working conditions, and must pay their employees a living wage.
3. ORGANIZE A SWEATSHOP SIMULATION. To draw attention to what conditions are really like, follow the example of Wellesley students. They set up a room with poor ventilation, excessive heat, and worked long hours sewing tote bags. To make the experience more real, a CD with loud factory noise was played throughout the time. After just one shift, students reported that they were exhausted, and the constant noise from their factory CD drove them bonkers. To expand the awareness, you could have the simulation open to visitors so that they could get the feel.
4. JOIN A MISSION TRIP WITH A LOCAL CHURCH. There are plenty of churches that plan regular trips to small villages that make products for sale in the U.S., with all proceeds going to the village. Not only will you be learning about a different culture first hand, but you’ll also be helping the people you meet make a better life for themselves. Presbyterian and Catholic churches are just two examples.
5. CHOOSE FAIR TRADE, LOCALLY MADE, or RESALE. While this suggestion might seem difficult in light of the cost difference, the truth is, there is an option for every budget. You can easily shop from your sofa, stop by that cute little shop you’ve always wanted to check out, or at your local Salvation Army or Goodwill. Some are better than others, but it’s well worth the trip. Go with your best friend, and make it an outing.
6. BUY U.S. UNION MADE PRODUCTS. When shopping for products, check for a label that certifies the item was made by a worker whose working conditions and pay are backed by a union. Simply looking for a ‘Made In the U.S.A.’ label does not work. Many companies are now using that label for products if they are partially assembled in the U.S. The label is also being affixed if the clothing is made in U.S. territories. The proper union label will show the word UNITE, which represents the unionized workers. You can also look for clothing made by this list of union supported companies.
7. HOST A YARD SALE FOR YOUR BLOCK OR NEIGHBORHOOD, but clothing only. Host a clothing only yard sale that benefits workers who have been exploited by American companies. One organization that helps these workers is Boat People S.O.S. One of those workers, Quang Thi Vo, has her story chronicled in a local Virginia paper. While she is safely living in the United States, she and her fellow workers have yet to receive their back pay despite the fact that the owner has been convicted of forced servitude.
So the next time you look through your closet and ponder a purchase, take a moment to think. Are you going to be resigned to thinking that there’s nothing you can do or are you going to instead make life better for some hard-working people halfway across the world? Print off this quote by Cesar Chavez and place it in your closet:
It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere. But God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we will use our limited time on earth. It is an awesome opportunity.
What else could be better than both shopping and making a difference in someone’s life?