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In Theory: What's our responsibility toward sweatshops?

June 21, 2013

More than a thousand workers were killed in Bangladesh when a building used as a garment factory collapsed. It's alleged that a factory in China making products for Apple has nets installed to stop people leaping to their deaths after 18 suicides there. And in Pakistan, 300 people burned to death when a factory caught fire. As Westerners demand cheaper goods, the use of so-called "sweatshops" abroad has rocketed. But the goods are cheaper because "[t]he global proliferation of sweatshops has driven the income and working conditions of garment, electronics and other factory workers to the absolute rock bottom," according to an article on TruthOut.org. After the Bangladesh disaster, retail giant Walmart severed its relationship with the supplier who used the factory. Other corporations have got together to fund inspections of buildings or to monitor workers' conditions. But some argue that it's too little, too late.

Q. What, if anything, can be done about the proliferation of sweatshops?

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While one can blame the proliferation of overseas sweatshops on the Western world's demand for quality goods at rock-bottom prices, one must also look at the manufacturer's demands for continually widening profit margins. With American union workers still asking for such things as health care, vacation days, cost of living increases, sanitary working conditions, skilled supervision, paid pregnancy leave and humane in-house treatment, overseas sweatshops provide a much cheaper source of labor, with no labor representation to talk back to management.

Take a look at the overseas construction of popular cell phones. An iPhone 5 with 64 gigabytes retails for about $850 from some service-providers. Some sources say that the phone costs about $170, at the most, to build. That is a profit, before payouts, of 400%. Paying a dollar or so an hour to sweatshop workers to build these phones still leaves huge profits for the manufacturers.

In the early part of the 20th century, American automobile manufacturers increased their profit margins by hiring ethnic labor from the American South and paying those workers three-quarters to half of what their Anglo counterparts were making. This resulted in escalating racial tensions in the North and the 20th-century revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

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