Slavery Exists Because of Me

It was in an 8:30am economics class in college that I first heard how sweatshops could be tools for empowerment in developing countries. When the professor began drawing the diagrams on the board – the supply line here, the demand line there, the dotted line for wages between – I instinctively crossed my arms and furrowed my brow in opposition.

Teaching that sweatshops were better than no jobs seemed like an academically-sanctioned excuse to exploit marginalized workers.

A product of the 1990s, I grew up vaguely hearing about the sweatshop controversies that multinational corporations were embroiled in. I heard stories of children working long hours in unsafe conditions because their nimble hands were better suited to assembling our gym shoes or rugs or dresses. I learned about the economics that said that closing sweatshops increases child prostitution (aka human trafficking).

Why does it have to be this way?

They say that every developing country goes through a T-shirt phase. The United States did in the early 1900s before the economic boom and bust of the early war years. But the U.S. also had the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in which 146 garment workers, mostly poor Jewish and Italian immigrant women as young as 14-years-old, perished. They suffocated from smoke inhalation, charred in the raging fire, or jumped from the windows to their deaths because the factory managers had locked the doors and stairwells. Apparently, the managers were attempting to prevent pilferage and unproductiveness. And apparently, preventing smoking breaks and the occasional five-finger discount were more important than 146 lives.

It’s the same story over and over again: profit and productivity are prioritized over people, and factories become mass graves.

Six month ago, I torpidly skimmed through my Twitter feed still half asleep in the early morning, a bad habit that I’m trying to break, when I came across a headline that alerted me like no morning alarm ever has. The headline stated that a woman named Reshma was found alive 17 days after the tragic collapse of the multi-storied Rana Plaza garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. For over 400 hours, this woman survived in the rubble of hundreds upon hundreds of crushed workers on fragments of food and water. The reporters shared how as rescue workers combed through the remains of the factory, they heard the faint yet ferocious cry for help from the woman, saying “save me!” repeatedly at the top of her parched lungs. She was saved, but over 1,100 others were not.

The Rana Plaza factory collapse is now classified as the worst disaster in the history of the garment industry. Nearly 10 times as many Bangladeshi workers, mostly women and girls, were crushed and buried in the rubble earlier this year as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City last century. And while there is now a swelling and awareness of support for alternatives to the destructive, deadly fast fashion industry for which factories like Rana Plaza produced, the difference is that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory galvanized the labor rights movement in the U.S., ushering in a series of improved safety standards and working conditions for sweatshop workers. They said never again, and in the U.S., it’s mostly been true.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that we – that I – think Western lives are 10 times more valuable than Bangladeshi lives.

We’d never say it outright, of course. We would embed it in convenient stories about how Western consumers don’t care or even really know any better, or that we’re providing jobs that poor Bangladeshis otherwise wouldn’t have, or that this is just how multinational corporations with opaque, complex supply chains operate – elevating profits over people at all cost, even the cost of death.

It’s simply easier to pass the buck than pay an extra buck for the clothes we wear.

The truth is that this miscalculation of the value of human life for the “other” starts with me. I make the excuses to justify my overconsumption. I was the one who amassed nearly 100 dresses by the time I was in college, mostly from fast fashion retailers with less than stellar labor practices. I decided that I deserved to wear a new dress every day for three months because...well, it made me feel good. Who doesn’t like the excitement of wearing something new?

I am the one who aimlessly shuffles through the sale racks at discount superstores, convincing myself that one more sundress isn’t so bad and how I really just want a fake leather jacket for the fall. Maybe I talk myself into thinking that I need these things, or that I even deserve them, or that I can’t afford anything more expensive than 60%-off clothing on the racks made in Bangladesh or China or Indonesia. And after all, how can we really know whether or not it was made by slaves?

But then I think about Reshma, the woman who resurrected from the mass grave after 17 days of isolation and thirst and hunger. I think about the 1,100 others whose bodies were also pulled from the rubble, having experienced not isolation but desolation, not hunger and thirst but starvation, not life but death.

In the beginning and in the end, it’s about economics, about the miscalculation of human life that values “us” more than “them” – a calculation I must come come face-to-face with.

The curves of supply and demand drawn on the chalkboard in my college economics course weren’t arbitrary. They were based on aggregated, analyzed data from real consumers who, like me, assessed that supply should intersect wherever and however we demand it. Why? Because we want to robe ourselves in the latest fashion even if it robs others of their humanity – or even their lives.

The garment factory collapse in Dhaka is now the worst in history, yet companies will only start producing clothing more ethically when consumers like me demand it.

Well, I demand it.

I demand to wear clothing that tells a story of workers’ empowerment, not mass graves. I demand to share stories of women rising out of poverty because their microenterprise enabled them to provide food and education for their families. I demand that companies investigate their supply chains for forced labor and other types of exploitation, and to take steps to ensure workers’ safety and security. I demand to wear clothing that isn’t made by slaves, from the cotton picked in Uzbekistan to the sewing machines in Bangladesh.

And I demand a new calculation of human life: that being made in the image of God proves that we are more than curves on a chalkboard.

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This post was originally published on Sarah Bessey's blog.