An interesting thought on sweatshops

Recently, The Gap Corporation was exposed for having a product line that had been made by children in sweatshops. These were children who had been bonded (i.e., sold for a fee paid to their parents) to a factory owner. On an international level, bonded children are oftentimes “bought” from their parents for as little as $5, though they are also out-right kidnapped at times. They work for no money, 12-16 hour days, with no contact with their parents. The children are as young as 5.

It got me thinking. At first, I was shocked. I noted the exotic places that their clothes labels have listed on them and was horrified to think that my children could be wearing something that a child their age had been forced to make in appalling conditions.

Then, an acquaintance that travels to developing nations quite a bit made an interesting point: what else are these children going to do?

There is a distinction between sweatshops who use bonded children and those who don’t bond the kids. Bonded children should absolutely be rescued. The Gap Corporation (as well as many other multi-national corporations) has a program that is supposed to force any contractors who are caught bonding children to provide schooling and money to the children. They are also required to offer them a job when they are of a legal age to work. (Check out http://globalmarch.org for more information on this issue.)

What about those developing nations where children (or their families) make the choice to work in a sweatshop? In the relative comfort of our homes, we seem to have this idealized view that these children would have a better life if they weren’t sewing beads onto shirts for long hours, in difficult conditions, for what we consider to be little pay. Yes, this is awful. But how would their lives be better if they weren’t working? Living on the street? Involved in crime or prostitution? It’s not like these children would be home with full bellies and attending school in crisp uniforms. They choose to work in sweatshops because they (and their families) don’t have a plethora of other options.

Does anyone recall that America used child labor heavily during the Industrial Revolution? It’s one of the reasons that American industry evolved. One theory by economists is that by choosing clothes made in sweatshops, we (as consumers) provide for a greater demand for sweatshop labor (a twisted way of thinking, I concur). This increases competition for labor, forcing factory owners to improve wages and working conditions, ultimately driving the country to more development. Hmmm….

(As an aside, a report by The Christian Science Monitor in 2005 showed that 90% of the countries involved in sweatshop labor paid a wage that was higher then the average wage for that country. Remember the Kathy Lee Gifford sweatshop scandal in Honduras a few years ago? The average wage for 44% of people in Honduras at the time was $2 a day. The average wage for one of her sweatshop laborers was $13.10. A thought to consider….).

So, what does this mean for me as a suburban mom? It means that I need to be more aware of what companies are doing to avoid using bonded children. I applaud the efforts of organizations that find and rescue children from slave labor. America should not trade with countries that would permit abuse of their children, in any capacity. I need to know a little bit about how countries invest in their children (one source is UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children–I look at child mortality rate and % of children enrolled in school: .

But am I going to join with the “sweatshop free” crowd? No, I don’t think I will. The tank top marked “Made in Vietnam” might actually represent a child or family who is glad of the chance to earn a wage and has hope of a better future, partly because moms like me are paying attention.

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