Sweatshop Company Accountability

Updated on November 28, 2018
Off-shore child labor is often used in sweatshops.
Off-shore child labor is often used in sweatshops.

Holding Companies who use Sweatshop Labor Accountable

In the poorer nations of the world, sweatshops abound. Many are dirty, dangerous, overcrowded and oppressive places that sometimes don't even pay their labor force and follow no safety or environmental standards whatsoever. These places can be violent in the manner in how the workers are treated with long hours (16 to 18 hours a day), few or no breaks, no days off, threats, intimidation, beatings, torture and even executions. They also use slaves and child labor in contravention to international agreements. Most, but not exclusively, these shops are found "off-shore" where there are no unions, labor legislation and law or environmental standards. Within their countries where few standards exist, they are for the moment, completely legal. All waste from manufacture, no mater how toxic, is simply dumped into the shanty towns that surround the factories, into the aquifers, into the air and the land. Company heads and profit making ventures in a bid to cut costs, have to do away with unions and any other factor that costs and cuts into profits. Where this can't be done at home, then they simply close shop, lay off the entire work force and relocate where expenses are fewer and profit potential in ledgers are much higher. If costs are low enough, it may even be cheaper to ship raw resources halfway around the world have them converted into commodities by extremely cheap labor and then ship these back half way around the world for sale in a domestic market cheaper than if they were made at home. This single fact demonstrates a complete lack of concern about the environment due to such a heavy carbon footprint. Despite all of this movement involving shipping back and forth, such companies still turn a profit. What does this say about "off-shore" conditions as a result? What is our responsibility at home? How can we solve this huge gap?

First let us look at some examples. In India, a burgeoning telemarketing workforce is emerging to manage credit accounts for all kinds of business including cell phones and internet servers. These workers are often paid 100 rupees a month, far less than the several hundred a month corporations have to pay on-shore. The rupee conversion of this amount to US currency amounts to about a dollar and 50 cents. As a result, telemarketing jobs went off-shore and unemployment resulted at home. Also in India, child labor abounds where children are forced to manufacture stuffed animals, tourist trinkets, holiday themed commodities and other items. Sometimes children work as slaves and have to fend for themselves after work. They are recruited off the streets from among the desperately poor and the homeless with promises of wealth and an escape from misery only to find a new misery. Worldwide there are tens of millions still working as slaves.

China is another region, especially where western business interests have invested and set up shop, tens of millions are employed in furniture making, holiday trinkets, cheap electronics, clothing and other items. Within the confines of the Chinese Communist protectorate, these businesses are allowed to flourish as they promote international trade and help in controlling the Chinese regime. Chinese workers in these factories have a few more rights than their Indian counterparts, but they still work in filthy conditions and toxic environments where there are no environmental controls. China has a problem with local global dimming and brown clouds. The problem of the pollution surfaced during the 2008 Beijing Olympics for the world to see. The rate of economic expansion with unregulated environmental controls has created a huge local problem.

The Rio Grande River that separates Texas from Mexico demarcates two worlds. On the Texas side, where people attempt to escape into the US, the living standard is high. On the Mexican side there is squalor and pollution everywhere. Yet there are huge factories making parts for cars and appliances that are part of the NAFTA free trade agreement. Surrounding these are sprawling shanty towns wallowing in factory pollution and raw sewage. People here do jobs formerly done in the US that were shipped south of the Rio Grande in order to cut labor costs and avoid strict environmental standards that exist in the US. The heavy pollution is just across the Rio Grande, drifting across into the US and does not respect such fictitious boundaries as a narrow river. Even though the Mexicans have jobs here, they still wanted to escape north in order to find a menial job at better pay.

We Have Home Grown Sweatshops as Well and you may Have Eaten There!

In Egypt, there is a town on the Nile delta that boasts zero unemployment. Everyone is involved with woodworking making specialty furniture that is a copy of 19th century carved furniture catering to a high end market in Europe. These people who are involved in intricate carving are paid low wages; far lower that counterparts in Europe would be paid for exactly the same kind of work. Instead, wood is shipped in, processed and manufactured into furniture. The demand is so high, that the region cannot produce it fast enough. Though not a sweatshop by the standards found in China, India, Asian Minor and Mexico, nonetheless, work standards are poor. As the region has no wood of its own, everything is imported and then shipped back as fully manufactured items. Again there is no regard for transport produced pollution.

There are workers in Nigeria and other African countries who mine diamonds or work in oil fields that are paid so little that they have to hunt for food after work. In Nigeria, the Shell Oil Co polluted the waterways and land, poisoning the fish and food the workers relied on. When an environmental protest was launched, twelve protesters were rounded up, tried and hung on a criminal pretext. Pollution continued until the international community stepped in.

In the US and in Canada, there are sweatshops that typically use immigrant workers, who may be illegal immigrants or those shipped from off-shore to work in secret factories. The question of illegal immigrants in domestic sweatshops exist because of a covert deal by the employer to keep quite as long as the illegal employees don't create trouble, such as asking for a better deal. If they do, they risk an invasion by the I.N.S. and deportation. Scam artists in Asian countries charge people seeking a better life in America or Europe and these folk often being desperately poor agree to work off the fees, which can take a long time due to low wages, high relocation and housing fees. They work in secret factories right here in the US and Canada. They often live where they work so that a low profile is maintained. Thus off shore costs can be minimized by having off-shore conditions located domestically and sharply reducing shipping costs. Though this does reduce the carbon footprint, but at the cost of human rights.

Companies that rely on sweat shop labor and pollute the world environment have to be held accountable. This is done first by revealing their activities to the world at large. This can be a risky business as it was in Nigeria. Nevertheless, the revelation such as in Nigeria, at least can get the company involved in cleaning up their act.

But to hold these companies accountable also includes holding domestic corporations and governments accountable, especially when deals like NAFTA, APEC, TILMA and the like are drafted for the specific purpose of cutting costs by any means. Most of these acts are already in place and have allowed for the deplorable conditions we see just south of the Rio Grande and the lack of manufacturing jobs domestically. Carbon credits that are traded are a mere dodge to avoid the expense of cleaning up ones act home and abroad. It is cheaper to pay for credits from a non polluting region to a heavily polluting one. Closed factories emit little pollution and continue exist for the purpose of carbon credit swaps.

Using sweat shop labor has to be made unprofitable and this is done by an international boycott pending improving the manufacturing plant to suitable conditions and paying a living wage to their employees conditioned on costs in the region. The boycott can also force the companies involved to clean up their act as the pollution ultimately influences all of us. In this regard alone, China and India are now the worst offenders and are in dire need of meeting basic environmental standards. But in the profit seeking mode of production, such demands will more likely close a sweatshop door, creating unemployment and cause relocation of the plant than to create better circumstances for the workers and environment.

The recent world economic collapse commencing Set.-Oct. 2008 has turned tens of millions of poverty laborers in all the countries mentioned onto the streets with no recourse whatsoever for support outside of a job. As unemployment escalates in the consuming nations of the US, Canada and Europe, spending falls, demand for even cheap imports falls and the result is a new misery in the places mentioned that exploit sweatshop labor and slaves. Holding companies responsible has to be a multifaceted process that involves international cooperation, confronting local governments at all levels and the CEOs of these companies. Minimum world standards will have to be set for the treatment of laborers and the environment and these requirements will have to be equipped with means to enforce the standards. If profit continues to be the goal and the guide, then nothing much will change beyond a lot of public relations and hand wringing, which is what we have seen thus far. The world will require an international planned economy in order to bring sweatshops and polluters into line.


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