Speaking Out Against the Slave Labor of the Sweatshop System

The Rana Plaza building near Dhaka, Bangladesh collapsed recently, killing (at latest count) 657 sweatshop workers, and seriously injuring thousands. Pope Francis responded in a homily, condemning the horrible wages and conditions:

Not paying a just [wage], not providing work, focusing exclusively on the balance books, on financial statements, only looking at making personal profit. That goes against God! [….] A headline that impressed me so much the day of the Bangladesh tragedy, ‘Living on 38 euros a month’: this was the payment of these people who have died … And this is called ‘slave labor!’
The collapsed Rana Plaza building

Worse than the hours or conditions is the mindset that gave rise to these sweatshop conditions, a mentality that places profits above human lives. That dehumanizing disregard for the value of human life was particularly visible in this disaster, as management ordered workers to risk their lives, even after it became clear that the building was a serious safety hazard:

Several garment workers near the wreckage said a crack appeared Tuesday on the building’s seventh floor. 
At first, the workers said, managers ordered workers not to report to work on Wednesday.
Later, the factory owners reversed the order, telling workers that the building was safe, said Marjina Begum, who worked on the sixth floor. Many workers were hesitant to show up Wednesday but reported to work because they were afraid of losing their jobs, she said. More than a dozen other workers corroborated her story.
It’s this dehumanization that Pope Francis drew particular attention to, noting that in the modern economic system,

People are less important than the things that give profit to those who have political, social, economic power. What point have we come to? To the point that we are not aware of this dignity of the person; this dignity of labor. But today the figure of St. Joseph, of Jesus, of God who work – this is our model – they teach us the way forward, towards dignity. 

Both communism and many forms of capitalism share a reductionist view of man. Instead of treating every human as made in the image and likeness of God, man is viewed simply as “labor” or the “proletariat.” His worth is no longer tied to his innate and God-given human dignity, but to his economic capacity, and he becomes little more than a glorified machine (and in some cases, lower than even machines, since damaged “labor” is easily replaced).

Victims of the Rana Plaza collapse

This point, made well in Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, has been aggravated by another trend. Over the last few decades, there has been in a shift in how we (particularly, but not exclusively, Americans) view economic issues. In the past, the two sides of the political spectrum were focused largely on the rights and interests of business owners and “job creators” on one side, and the rights and interests of workers on the other.

These days, I’d argue that there’s been a clear shift: both sides of the political aisle are moving away from workers’ rights, and the legitimate rights of businesses (and business owners), in favor of “consumers’ rights.” We see this shift in a variety of contexts. For example, many of the arguments against conscience clauses and for the HHS Mandate both appear to be based on some variation of this idea: “I’m the customer and I want this, so I should be able to have it, even if you are morally opposed to giving it to me.”

That same unprincipled selfishness seems to be at the root of the problem here, as Western (American and British) clothing companies fueled the demand for this sweatshop:

Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.

The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for major brands including North American retailers The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. Ether Tex said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was one of its customers.  
Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production.
The companies who treat workers in this dehumanizing manner are morally culpable here, but so are we, when we incentivize this behavior by demanding cheap goods over just wages and conditions.

6 Comments

  1. I <3 this article!

    In the us everything is about the bottom dollar. How cheap can we get it.

    I try my best. I avoid chinese made products, and attempt to buy second hand and us made goods while trying to make sure that the raw materials are also usa made.

    Sometimes this is difficult as most electronics are chinese made.

    I wish that there was more that i could do to support ethical manufacture but i have no idea.

  2. It’s really hard, me and my wife hate to say as of right now gave up on trying to boycott anything that goes against pro-life stances… businesses do a good job of discretely hiding what they support as well.

  3. This pope too is a blind unsaved religious do-gooder who thinks Christianity means setting up a communist world soviet government to pillage the world’s wealth in a “redistribution” scheme. The apostasy of your church is patently obvious. Any true Christians remaining in it need to get out ASAP.

  4. The first pope ever to be accused of working with the junta to disappear Marxist priests while being accused of being a neoSoviet do-gooder.

    Ironically, it isn’t the CPUSA or Socialist International that’s at the tip of the spear of one world government but rather the neoliberals: Goldman Sachs, Soros, Bilderbergs etc.

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