Sweat or No Sweat?

When we throw on a T-shirt, we rarely ever think about the garment itself. Who made it? Where did it come from? If ever we do think about our T-shirts, most us think about how cool we look based on what’s scribbled across it: “Chicago Bulls,” “I [Heart] NY,” or “Life Sucks” or “I Hate B*sh.”

College students in the nineties gave a lot of thought to the origin of their T-shirts. Led on by the AFL-CIO, and in general, the labor movement in the U.S (which is concerned primarily about preserving U.S. jobs) students protested outside libraries, inside student unions, and wrote fiery letters to Wal-Mart and Gap executives to stop buying T-shirts from poor countries where children work.

By the 2000s, the campaign against child labor in the apparel factories of poor countries seemed to have calmed down, partly because these protests went out of fashion, and party because some apparel companies did cut back on hiring child workers.

But protests still continue over the flight of U.S. apparel jobs to cheaper destinations and the abuse of workers in garment factories of foreign lands.

The reality in poor countries is quite different. Poor countries are fervently hoping that concerns over labor abuses wouldn’t lead US apparel companies to stop their purchases. In countries like Bangladesh and India, which sell clothes to US market, throngs of workers want to embrace the wearisome manufacturing jobs of making T-shirts and other apparel items.

In Bangladesh, the garment industry brings in billions of dollars, supplies 75 percent of Bangladeshi export earnings, and provides the livelihoods of 2 million young women, and is generally a sunny spot in the country’s economy.

The pretense of the labor movement in the U.S. is that foreigners are being forced to do these jobs. Meanwhile, throngs of hungry workers in poor countries are clamoring for T-shirt-making jobs to avoid getting pulled into drilling workshops, or into the sex industry.

Let the stats tell the true story. In spite of a lengthy quota regime to protect US apparel jobs from 1975–2005,  the numbers of U.S. apparel workers actually shrank from 1.4 million to 270,000!

My hope is that human rights in poor countries will ultimately be respected, but trying to prevent poor countries from selling their clothes is hardly a way to address the root of the labor abuse problem, which is largely a function of endemic poverty.