The formal estimations of the numbers of salves in the world that are mentioned in the former post don’t include the hundreds of millions of sweatshop slaves. The people trapped in these extremely exploitative systems are not formally owned by another person, and they are not formally forced to work under these conditions. However, they can’t leave, in many cases they can’t negotiate their working conditions, they must compromise their physical and emotional health, they work very hard for very long hours, for very little pay, not allowed to talk with fellow workers or move away from their working station without permission and they have no other options except for transferring to another place and work under more or less the same conditions.
When all the options are of the same awfulness only in a different location, choosing is only theoretical, practically it is slavery. Maybe not formally, but definitely practically.
Almost 600 years after the trans-Atlantic salve trade was started and about 200 after it was allegedly ended, and we are in the middle of the greatest slave trade yet.
Besides that some don’t consider sweatshops as modern slavery, it seems that sweatshops are absent from the lists of contemporary slavery forms in many of the relevant organizations because the general public finds it hard to resist the temptations this sort of modern slavery provides.
In the late 90’s sweatshops were in the headlines, and opposing the dreadful working conditions was mainstream. But conveniently, the corporations’ green wash had worked.
Everybody knows corporations green wash the public, but people tend to comply and readily forget the images they saw from the sweatshops when they are dazzled by a product that is easy on the pocket. They somehow fail to notice the obvious contradiction between the fact that products keep getting cheaper and cheaper all the time, while corporations state that they are improving the conditions in their factories and of their workers, all the time.
Corporations’ sole purpose is to increase profits. They can do it by raising the prices of their products, or they can do it by cutting down the expenses which usually means that they compromise the health and safety of the workers.
Every once in a while, to cut expanses even deeper, they transfer some or all of their factories to places where the wages are even lower, labor laws are marginal and enforcement is fanciful. They can choose where to produce according to the cheapest offer. That is the race to the bottom.
For example, the number of sweatshops in Mexico soared in the 1990’s after NAFTA enticed companies to close their US operations and move south. As global manufacturing costs continued to shift, many companies then moved their factories from Mexico to even more convenient for exploitation countries in Asia.
If only it was humans’ ignorance regarding what is still happening in sweatshops that allowed them to keep buying these products it could be solved by informing them, unfortunately it is not unawareness but apathy.
Green washing is only one tactic. Big companies cover themselves by contracting suppliers who subcontract the labor out from the main factories. Most of the work is done out of sight, and the pieces are sent back to the main factory to be finished and labeled. When the inspectors come for a checkup they find nothing suspicions and major brands can play innocent.
Most factories are monitored by inspectors who are paid by the industry. Often, they’ll call ahead to arrange a visit. Some factories simply hold two sets of books, one for the brand and a real one. In the brand’s books everyone works 8 hours a day and get a lunch break. The real books show 16 hours and no days off at all.
Not only are the wages in sweatshops so low, employment is also becoming more precarious as more workers are put on to temporary contracts. That is so the employers won’t have to pay for holidays and sick days and could impose lower wages, compulsory overtime and higher production targets.
Despite that it is illegal to pay wages based on productivity targets, it is very common. A survey made in Sri Lanka found one factory in which the basic pay was even cut if targets set by the management were not achieved and at other factories, workers were forced to work overtime to meet productivity targets.
The typical hours in sweatshops can be from 6am to 8pm, 14 hours of hard work every single day, excluding overtime. All of the workers are forced to do extra labor time, usually without extra pay.
Incidents of mental and physical abuse when workers fail to reach production targets are common.
In many cases, the employers’ behavior is illegal, but without sufficient inspection by the corporations and with so little enforcement motivation by the governments, legislation is meaningless.
Most of the workers are women, many of which are young girls from rural areas which are more vulnerable for exploitation, as well as for sexual harassment which is prevalent in sweatshops.
As long as the profits are rising constantly, as long as the public image is not hurt too much, and as long as they can blame the sub-sub-sub-contractors as they always do, this form of modern slavery will continue. Usually one factory is decorated as scenery for PR and the rest have their walls externally painted and fire extinguishers added to make them appear better for a quick look.
It took the Rana Plaza collapse on April 2013 (1,134 people were killed and many others injured after an eight-story garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh) for the industry to finally commit itself to examine the safety conditions of its buildings. But in the corporate world making a public commitment is not really committing, very little was done on workers’ safety compared to the promises, and almost nothing was done on workers’ rights.
Fast Fashion and Mega-Suppliers
Not only that the reality is far from corporations’ narrations, in many ways things have gotten worse. Even if every action improving the workers conditions that corporations have truly taken in the last decade (and not only say they did), was merely done to improve their public relations, the recent changes within the garment industry, are going to makes us miss their green wash.
Another way to increase profits is to make people buy more and more products. In the clothing industry it is done by multiplying the fashion seasons. There used to be 2 seasons, but in the last decades, with production cost of commodities so low and their transportation speed so high, fashions are being changed constantly. The fashion industry has been reinvented and it is now what is called fast fashion. Today humans are purchasing over 80 billion pieces of cloths each year. That’s 4 times more than the amount purchased just 2 decades ago. Americans alone throw away over 11 billion tons of cloths every year. And that’s what the producers are counting on, that consumers would throw away last season’ cloths and get new ones thanks to their cheap price and while ignoring their true cost.
In the 90’s factories had around two months to prepare orders for western brands, now they get about a week. Factories have to compete on the number of clothing lines they can produce and how quickly they can switch from one to another.
In our fast-fashion era western brands can’t count only on their regular suppliers to always meet their demands and on time, so most of them outsource the coordination to mega-suppliers who can take a design sketch, split the production between thousands of factories, box up the goods and ship them to stores before the competitors come up with their own new line.
Corporations do a lousy job inspecting their own factories as it is, with mega-suppliers everything is getting even worse.
In 2013, The New York Times published a partial list of harms done by one of these new mega-suppliers called Li & Fung, including: 29 workers killed in a fire in Bangladesh in 2010; at least two workers killed in a “stampede,” also in Bangladesh, in 2011; 280 workers fainting at a facility in Cambodia due to malnourishment and air contamination; and a dozen workers fired in Indonesia for trying to start a union.
According to Jeroen Merk, a researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, some companies ordering clothes through mega-suppliers, don’t know which factories they were made in or even in which countries. In many cases, the mega-suppliers don’t know either.
Another researcher called Gale Raj-Reichert from the University of Manchester who studies electronics supply chains, says that some manufacturers have no idea which company they are producing for. They get their orders and deliver the goods exclusively through middlemen.
So if they have no idea, even the few consumers who truly want to know before they buy products, who, where and how they were made, have no chance of figuring that out.
Typically the final product you purchase has passed through a long chain of producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers who have all participated in its production, delivery and sale. It can therefore be very difficult to track a component of an end product back to a particular producer, for example cotton in a T-shirt back to a particular cotton farm. Cotton still is largely a product of slavery. The Environmental Justice Foundation wrote in report that “six of the world’s top seven cotton producers have been reported to use children in the field.”
Not only that in many ways things are a lot worse than most people tend to think, they will get even worse in the near future.
As if the effect of western consumers on western corporations, demanding them to force their supply chains for better working conditions in the production lines, isn’t small as it is, it is getting smaller and smaller in recent years, as western markets themselves are getting smaller compared with the rest of the world.
Nowadays, India produces twice as much clothing for its own consumers as it does for westerners and china produces half of it for the Chinese market.
Developing countries are not only producing for themselves but for each other. Garment exports from Bangladesh to other poor countries have grown in recent years by as much as 50% per year. In the last decade the fastest growing demand for clothing was in China, India, Brazil and Eastern Europe.
The expending middle class in these countries in the last 15 years is demanding cheap merchandise, exactly the kinds of products that are most likely to be made in supply chains with low or nonexistent labor standards.
This shift already withdraws the little gains made in the last 15 years protecting labor conditions and the environment in poor countries, and it will get worse.
For every tailor working in a factory, there are several employed in workshops, homes or backyards. Around 80% of them are informal, mostly migrants, some of them trafficked, that are paid a few cents for each piece of clothing they deliver. Many are children sewing and cutting on apartment floors, paid half if any.
Factories in developing countries that produce clothes for western markets need to at least appear as if they are complying with the official standards. For domestic markets, they don’t. That’s why slavery and child labor would probably get even more prevalent.
One of the ways to deal with modern slavery is to argue that as horrible as it may seem to westerners, the people trapped in sweatshops are better off with them than without them.
Arguments such as “sweatshops are better than not having a job at all”, once exclusive to the neo-liberal camp, now can be heard from a wider group of people.
That is probably the next evolvement in the modern slavery justification. Consumers feel that they are actually doing a favor to poor people by “sharing” some of their wealth with them.
These lame excuses became popular only because of the failure to change the reality of the poor and because of the motivation to justify the exploitation. The fact that sweatshops are claimed to be better than nothing is not a reason to keep the working conditions a little above that level. However it is that rhetoric exactly that enables the exploiters to provide the most minimal conditions. The exploiters examine what are the conditions that below them even the extremely despair won’t accept, and that’s where they set the standard. They are taking advantage of the poor extreme despair under the convenient excuse that anything is better than nothing.
The fact is that sweatshop workers are paid less than their daily expenses, so they are unable to save money to improve their lives. They are trapped in an awful cycle of exploitation.
Many of those who don’t feel comfortable enough with the “doing them a favor” narrative, tend to deny that sweatshops are modern slavery. And the motivation is clear, otherwise everyone is an enslaver. While most humans can personally avoid most of the practices of slavery mentioned in the former post, they can’t when it comes to sweatshops. They can personally avoid sexual trafficking for example by not consuming pornography (not to mention face to face sexual exploitation). They can avoid debt bondage and forced marriage by simply not doing it. They can’t personally stop the slavery but they can avoid increasing it. However, sweatshops as opposed to debt bondage and sexual trafficking can’t be labeled as merely a product of greedy humans, corrupt governments, stagnant societies and the specific merciless humans who enjoy these exploitative services. In the case of sweatshops everyone is guilty. Guilty by increasing the problem. Most of the forms of slavery mentioned in the former post are happening because humans are not taking actions so they would stop, sweatshops exist because humans are taking actions so they won’t.
Modern slavery, in all its forms, the formal and informal, exists not only because of humans’ apathy but also because of humans’ cruelty.
Even the best people that humanity has to offer would find slavery impossible to avoid. If you are interested in a relatively accurate assumption of how many slaves help you personally to keep your level of life, you can take a survey right here:
Apart from the limited individualistic consumerist acts against slavery, on a global political level, in order to seriously confront slavery humanity must seriously confront its origin which is poverty. As long as there are highly vulnerable people, completely desperate, they would be taken advantage of by fellow humans.
The rich world actively benefits from plundering the poorer world to gain the luxurious lifestyle it enjoys. In what scenario is it going to give that up?
Slavery exists for thousands of years now. It was never ended nor reduced but was actually broadened in terms of the number of slaves, the enslavement methods, the salves’ ages, the ethnical diversity, and the geographical spread. Slavery has never ended but evolved with time and it is now much more extensive and less visible, and that is the surest recipe to assure its continuance.
Slavery is almost everywhere, almost in everything. Therefore the struggle to end slavery shouldn’t be inspirational for AR activists, but rather a wakeup call.