Who Really Benefits From Sweatshops?
by David L. Wilson
Consumers are ultimately the ones responsible for dangerous conditions in garment assembly plants in the Global South, Hong Kong-based business executive Bruce Rockowitz told the New York Times recently. The problem is that improved safety would raise the price of clothing, according to Rockowitz, who heads Li & Fung Limited, a sourcing company that hooks up retailers like Macy’s and Kohl’s with suppliers in low-wage countries like Bangladesh. “So far,” he said, “consumers have just not been willing to accept higher costs.”
Rockowitz isn’t alone in blaming consumers in Europe and the United States for sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry. The idea pervades popular culture. When 1,129 Bangladeshi sweatshop workers died in the Rana Plaza collapse in April, a lawyer in the United Kingdom proposed raising money for the victims by having consumers pay a voluntary “T-shirt tax” on clothing stitched in Bangladesh. “This isn’t just the fault of companies who supply cheap clothes,” barrister Victoria Butler-Cole explained.
But people rarely ask whether the facts support this idea. How much money do we really save because of cheap labor in the Global South?