Curtain Raiser

An Industry’s Sagging Ethics, Colltalers

Among the many negative factors compounding the harrowing conditions faced by garment workers around the world, one that particularly stings, stinks and stands out is the fact that teenage shoppers in big urban centers, the biggest consumers of their wares, are mostly oblivious to their plight.
The staggering socio-economic abyss dividing the two groups, wider than most segments of the chain of production, can obviously explain, at least in part, why that’s so. And so can an arguable rise in the alienation towards social causes currently experienced by the American youth, specially.
However, given that both groups share a statistically close age bracket, it’s almost baffling that this occurs with a generation that puts almost as much credence on the way they dress, and the brand-awareness they sport, as on the way they see and want to be perceived by the world.
From child labor to slavery, from unsanitary conditions to hazardous workplaces, where risk of being electrocuted or crushed to death is just another punch on their usual 12-hour shiftcards, this industry is long due to a radical departure from the 1800s lock and chain dungeon where it now rots.
While dominating and controlling the economy of countless impoverished nations, it successfully peddles its goods to a deep-pocket demographics that couldn’t show awareness about its brutal business model even if their collection of expensive, Made in China, Nikes would depend on.
Then again, those who do not partake neither the age group nor a particular bias towards attire, are often reminded to not make assumptions about how much credence youth place on anything, these days. It does sound like yet another reason for the gloomy aging to speak ill of sprightly ripe.
Regardless, a spate of catastrophic events related to the garment industry in the past few years should give pause even to the callous of spirit or the politically unmoved, right? Maybe. But it all could lead to yet another global high-horse cavalcade charging to a land of further indifference.
Only when the master puppeteers behind such appalling snapshot of the consumer society we all share and love, circa 2014, come into full glare, though, that we’re forced to confront our twisted allegiances about the issue (never mind how bad we really want that new faded-blue jeans).
And wouldn’t you know them? Walmart, Sears, Gap, Target, Urban Outfitters, J.C. Penney, and many others, including outfits linked to stellar names such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, have all been in either side of this trade quagmire: as part of its aggravation or solution.
We probably wouldn’t be talking about this now if it hadn’t been for the tragedy of Rana Plaza, an eight-store building in Bangladesh, that collapsed and killed over 1,100 people last April. Almost all casualties were garment workers, and their families are still to be compensated if ever.
It was after forensics and reverse engineering of that horrific event that it became clear what is really behind the purchase of a pair of pants from a designer brand in New York City, without having to declare bankruptcy afterwards. In other words, ideally cheap and affordable for teenagers.
For behind their low price is the culmination of a multi-nation, peripatetic trip through some of the poorest countries in the world, from windowless, exposed-electrical-wire sweatshop rooms, with hundreds of 10-year olds working around the clock, to the air-conditioned, cologne-wafted shopping malls of America. That and, as it’s been mentioned, a deeply ingrained lack of awareness about what’s hidden behind the labels.
It’s also disguised inside that strip of exposed underwear you spot on Justin Bieber, the glitter-infused slacks worn by Kate Perry, or the lamé-covered bra sported by Beyonce on her dance routines. Many of these top-selling performers, by the way, are heavily sponsored by the industry.
It’s hard to catch news about violations by big American retailers’ sub-contractors against their own employees, even when they hit the streets to protest, and are violently repressed and shot at by security forces. It happens in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Australia, and others places.
Uzbekistan enlists just about everyone for the annual harvest of cotton, a staple of its agricultural-based economy and one of the most basic links between slavery in the crop fields of Asia and the bosom of T-shirt-wearing Americans, libertarian slogans imprinted on them notwithstanding.
No one’s surprised about learning of labor violations in Haiti, or that Walmart is as equally ruthless to its U.S. workers as it is to those it does business with around the world. There’s, however, an unsuspicious, and way more startling, ‘character’ playing a role in this vicious cycle.
The U.S. government, which according to a NYTimes recent story, has been sub-contracting for years some of the most ethically-challenged companies in Asia, to manufacture uniforms and other official apparel to its personnel. Which contradicts just about every, oh well never mind.
Between Rana Plaza and the many other fires, death traps, shootings, and all sorts of horrific and preventable tragedies dooming thousands of garment workers, before and since, there’s the one standing as the worst in American soil, that should’ve taught us something long ago.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, that destroyed a Union Square building in New York City, killing 146 underpaid workers 103 years ago a month from next Tuesday, should’ve set lasting standards of safety and dignity in the work place not to be ever violated. It did it but no longer.
In fact many of the accomplishments and guarantees workers enjoyed for over 70 years in the U.S. are tied by the efforts that unions and labor organizations fought for in the aftermath of that fire, even if that’s little comfort for those poor immigrants who perished, and their descendants.
Guess what became an ominous side effect of the Reagan administration’s efforts to dismantle unions in the 1980s? sweatshops. Boosted by organized labor’s demise, they’ve became an accepted, albeit immoral, business model. And their return, so came back the violations and yes, the tragedies.
But a determinant factor to fuel the changes that followed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 was that consumers became aware of the inhumane conditions people like them were being submitted to, in order to provide whatever fashionable garments they too would die to wear at that time.
A similar push may be required now, and those who at the trenches of this social blackhole are the same to whom the world is grooming to take it by the hand to a new era. Or more of the same. At the end of the day, we can’t possibly expect our kids to shoulder our battles by commission.
Still it may be up to us to help them pick the ones with the most meaning. Specially when they share identical rites of biological passage, if worlds away from each other. That shouldn’t be an excuse in a world of interconnected delusions and widespread peeking on each other’s underwear. Have a great one. WC

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