In Theory: What's our responsibility toward sweatshops?

More than a thousand workers were killed in Bangladesh when a building used as a garment factory collapsed. It's alleged that a factory in China making products for Apple has nets installed to stop people leaping to their deaths after 18 suicides there. And in Pakistan, 300 people burned to death when a factory caught fire. As Westerners demand cheaper goods, the use of so-called "sweatshops" abroad has rocketed. But the goods are cheaper because "[t]he global proliferation of sweatshops has driven the income and working conditions of garment, electronics and other factory workers to the absolute rock bottom," according to an article on After the Bangladesh disaster, retail giant Walmart severed its relationship with the supplier who used the factory. Other corporations have got together to fund inspections of buildings or to monitor workers' conditions. But some argue that it's too little, too late.

Q. What, if anything, can be done about the proliferation of sweatshops?

While one can blame the proliferation of overseas sweatshops on the Western world's demand for quality goods at rock-bottom prices, one must also look at the manufacturer's demands for continually widening profit margins. With American union workers still asking for such things as health care, vacation days, cost of living increases, sanitary working conditions, skilled supervision, paid pregnancy leave and humane in-house treatment, overseas sweatshops provide a much cheaper source of labor, with no labor representation to talk back to management.

Take a look at the overseas construction of popular cell phones. An iPhone 5 with 64 gigabytes retails for about $850 from some service-providers. Some sources say that the phone costs about $170, at the most, to build. That is a profit, before payouts, of 400%. Paying a dollar or so an hour to sweatshop workers to build these phones still leaves huge profits for the manufacturers.

In the early part of the 20th century, American automobile manufacturers increased their profit margins by hiring ethnic labor from the American South and paying those workers three-quarters to half of what their Anglo counterparts were making. This resulted in escalating racial tensions in the North and the 20th-century revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Can manufacturers provide safer conditions with better pay in sweatshops? Can some of those jobs return to the United States with the manufacturers agreeing to be satisfied with lesser profit margins and without sacrificing the quality of the product or without raising the price? The answer really could be "Yes," if those in charge of production understood their job of privilege and responsibility as "stewardship for the world," instead of chiefly "taking from the world."

The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.
Little White Chapel


This question is being directed at spiritual leaders regarding the economic practices of corporations that hardly concern themselves with moral or spiritual laws. Human laws they are very interested in, since the violation of those can quell production and incur hefty financial penalties, so the most we can do here is speak from our own traditions and hope there is a listening ear in the world of industry.

Perhaps the best advice from my own faith that I can suggest would be the words of Christ in his so-called "Golden Rule." Jesus said, "Do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12). This is the "Do unto others...." inexact quote that is often repeated in modern conversation of which we are all familiar, but probably don't realize that its sentiment finds itself expressed in quite a few religions, albeit in the negative. What I mean is that in most religions, the idea is expressed as, "Don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you," or something to that effect. Jesus makes it proactive: "Do."

Perhaps this is what must be emphasized with these corporations that seek only the bottom dollar to maximize profits at all of our expense. It's not a matter of simply saying, "We didn't construct the unstable factory buildings," or "We weren't in charge of the working conditions," it's about being proactive in taking responsibility. If we doubt humane working conditions, what we "do" is we build the factories and we post American bosses, and we do what ensures the well-being of even the least-significant workers. Maybe the floor sweeper earns less than those soldering circuit boards, but none should remotely consider their employment a death sentence. Of course, something we could all "do" is buy American.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


As people of faith, our "personal holiness" (as Methodist founder John Wesley called it) should turn us outward, joining us together in the work of "social holiness." In other words, as I receive Jesus' compassion and mercy for myself, I begin to live out that compassion and mercy for others. These incidents hold us accountable. Where do our clothes come from? Where does our food come from? We — and I fully confess my own complicity — live in an unfaithful ignorance and can be happy to do so.

When factories collapse overseas, recalling a similar tragedy in this country more than 100 years ago, we see with sadness that morally bankrupt conditions proliferate across the Global South. We begin to understand that there are "monitoring organizations" that are complicit in perpetuating these injustices, and we see that other organizations have arisen to monitor with greater integrity and transparency. I was inspired to explore the Worker Rights Consortium website and see how universities have collaborated to monitor and change working conditions in factories around the world. Sweatshops stop proliferating when consumers shop with awareness and support organizations that actively publicize bad management and pursue improved conditions.

In Los Angeles, Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice organizes alongside L.A. workers to bring about needed changes in wages and working conditions, as injustices are not in any way limited to the Global South. United Methodists have agreed that we support collective bargaining and workers' rights, so you will always find a lot of us gathered when CLUE sounds the call. Awareness starts at home and spreads across the globe.

The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church


I'm absolutely appalled and horrified by the revelations that have surfaced regarding the proliferation of sweatshops in many third-world countries. The continuation of such inhumane working conditions into the 21st century is inexcusable. There can be no reason to treat fellow human beings this way, let alone for the sake of saving a few dollars or euros to maintain our extravagant Western lifestyles. We should feel a sense of shame for creating an environment so fixated on cheap consumer goods that it sets the stage for these tragedies.

When properly regulated, capitalism can be a remarkable tool for common prosperity. The free market system has created unprecedented health, wealth and positive living standards in the United States, the European Union and beyond. It has reduced our country's mortality rate and increased our average longevity by many years. Our economic structure has enabled America to become a beacon of opportunity for others and given us the strength to be a worldwide force for good.

However, the fact is that the needs of wealthy societies are often met at the expense of other less fortunate nations. Because they offer cheap labor and abundant raw materials, many third-world countries are vulnerable to exploitation; they present ripe opportunities for unscrupulous businesses. We must remain cognizant of this and strive to never take unfair advantage of poorer nations.

I believe our society has an ethical responsibility to start categorizing clothing to make it clear whether slave labor was involved in the manufacturing process. I feel that the clergy and religious organizations can play a large part in encouraging people to only buy items that pass the "humane" test and are produced in factories where the workers are treated properly. For decades, we have implemented standards for the food industry to ensure the humane treatment of animals — can we do anything less when it comes to regulating industries that rely on the labor of our fellow human beings?

Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center


There is an expression that people can vote with their feet. In the case of sweatshops, people can vote with their pocketbooks. The point is, if sensitive consumers really are concerned about the rights of others, even those in other countries, they can try hard to be sure that they are not patronizing businesses that use sweatshop labor. I know that may sound a little bit like "Write your Congressman!" But if businesses realize that people won't buy products made by slave labor, they'll change.

The problem is, of course, that we all like a good deal, and we all want to pay as little as possible. However, the Apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 8:13, says that if eating meat causes my brother to sin, I'll eat no meat. So each of us, believer and nonbeliever alike, needs to decide that we'll drink only Fair Trade coffee, for example, and that we'll not patronize any company that uses sweatshop labor. But to be sure we don't patronize companies that don't enslave other people takes work and due diligence, and not everybody is ready to be that diligent. Also, the practice of farming out business overseas didn't happen overnight, and neither will a solution to the problem of sweatshop labor.

So my advice would be to get involved with those groups that try to stick up for sweatshop laborers and learn as much as you can about the whole issue. Also, be prepared for the complexity of the modern world. One store may feature products made for a decent wage in one department and in another part of the store sell sweatshop items. Being a responsible and humanitarian person, believer or not, requires a lot of work, and we can't say, "Oh, I didn't know!" Jesus got it right when he said we must be innocent as doves and yet wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16), and that's a tall order.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
La Cañada Flintridge


Businesses exist to make money. Wall Street demands higher profits each quarter, otherwise stock prices tumble and chief executives lose their jobs. Retail businesses know the consumer is fickle and will turn to a competitor on a whim. As a result, they keep costs and prices low. Pay no mind to how they're kept low, just keep 'em low. "Moral hazard?" What's that?

While this may be a broad generalization, I believe it is largely true. Indeed, the inhumane and deadly conditions in sweatshops in Bangladesh and other countries bear this out.

And between the sleek retail shops that sell clothes and other products and the death traps those clothes were made in lays a chain of people who have either wittingly or unwittingly contributed to those conditions — including you and me.

To the God-conscious, turning a blind eye to these sweatshop conditions is not acceptable. However, a balance must be struck between allowing business to profit with keeping our dollars from enabling a system that indentures, or even kills, poor people.

I think a lesson can be learned from the genetically modified food-labeling movement. Much has been done to educate and spark public debate about the effects of "genetically modified" food. A "GMO" food product may be cheaper to produce, but it may be bad for business as well.

Similarly if a "humanely manufactured" certification process/campaign becomes mainstream, and where retailers see it as a business advantage demonstrating they're selling such products, then the shopping public will hopefully evolve. Consumers just may be willing to pay some extra dollars knowing they're not contributing to the cycle of despair and poverty half a world away.

Omar S. Ricci


The absolute answer to the problem of dangerous and exploitative sweatshops is a change in the hearts of those who are responsible for their existence and operation. This primarily includes the sweatshop owners but indirectly it includes the vendors who deal with them and even the final purchasers of their products. Jesus Christ taught that the summary of God's requirements of us is to love him above all else and to love all others as ourselves. If we did that, sweatshops wouldn't exist. But for people to put workers' welfare above their own profits, it will take a change of their hearts.

Legal regulations, while necessary and appropriate in this fallen world, only restrain human behavior in an external way and often leave wide loopholes. If sweatshops are banned in the U.S., uncaring manufacturers will find other countries that will allow them. So we should pass and enforce international labor laws and we should self-police our purchasing habits, but we should put our ultimate hope in Jesus Christ's ability to change people's hearts — including our own.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


There is no "if anything" about it. We have successfully eliminated a proliferation of sweatshops once already in U.S. history.

At the turn of the 20th century, another time of unrestrained capitalism, 60% of U.S. clothing was manufactured in New York City and 100% of those garments were sewn in sweatshops. In 1911 the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire galvanized workers, unions and their allies to vigorously organize workplaces and put political pressure on governments for better wage, safety, and union-rights laws.

By 1945 U.S. sweatshops were almost all gone. The following years through the 1950s (though much less so for minorities) were a high-water mark for U.S. workers, with blue collars, and the pink ones and white ones that served and administered them, enjoying home ownership, cars, vacations and setting their kids up to do even better. Boomers, I'm lookin' at us.

Fast-forwarding this broad-stroke history, today's robber barons, globalized corporations, exploit weak unions, lax government regulations and anti-worker tax laws to create our current hell for many workers and their families.

Labor and capital must be brought into a better balance on the scales of power worldwide. Not easy for sure, but take heart, we know it is possible because we have done it before.

Even the most apolitical can help: Stop buying clothes — anything with a union label excepted. Really, don't you have enough? If not, there's a yard sale nearby. Let's wear what we have and share the excess cramming our closets until the manufacturers get the message.

Roberta Medford


When I read about the working conditions in factories in third-world countries, it breaks my heart. Unfortunately, the responsibility seems to lie with those retailers in the United States and other affluent countries who are demanding goods from these sweatshop operations and turning a blind eye to the ways in which workers are being treated. So we U.S. consumers are complicit in these horrendous practices. That is certainly a sobering thought.

However, one of the problems for the consumer is the recognition that it is almost impossible to find goods that are not produced in third-world countries or to determine whether they are being created by workers who are being humanely treated.

But we cannot simply make excuses. One thing we can do is research the practices of the companies who sell products we buy and refuse to purchase from those who treat their workers, either foreign or domestic, in unacceptable ways. There are some stores where I refuse to shop because of what I know about how they treat their workers. My boycott of these companies may not make a huge difference to their bottom lines, but at least I can feel that I have done something.

Another thing we can do is join others in putting pressure on retailers to investigate the manufacturers who supply them with goods to be sure they are treating their workers fairly. Or we can get lawmakers to enact legislation that protects workers and forces suppliers to set standards of treatment for their workers. If enough of us did that, I believe we could make a difference.

For those of us who are a part of spiritual communities, I believe we must act with integrity and compassion for the protection of all workers, in the U.S. or abroad. To do less is to negate the moral values that we claim to support.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta

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