Are modern sweatshops a form of modern slavery? Sophomore Whitney Oachs takes an interdisciplinary approach to thinking about this question. At the launch event of the UST Free Project, Whitney drew upon her coursework in history, cojo, and women’s studies to present on sweatshop workers.
Whitney’s powerful presentation, included below, underscored how history matters in understanding rights and challenges to modern citizenship. Her talk wraps up our feature on our students and their impressive research for now… but we can’t wait to continue the conversation!
“Getting Slavery Out of the Closet”
I try to be a stand-up citizen. I donate to charity, am vocal about social justice efforts and do my best to be kind. Never did I think that for most of my life, I had been contributing to slavery. Yet after getting involved with the FREE Project, I realized that slavery is as much alive today as it was during the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and can be found in the closet of most of our homes–in the clothes that we wear.
See, until the late 60s, nearly 75 percent of clothing sold in America was made in America. Now, over 90 percent of clothing manufacturing done in countries in the Middle East and South Asia, due primarily to outsourcing and globalization. When clothing corporations like H&M, Forever 21 and Zara realized that they could have their clothing manufactured cheaper in developing countries, people saw it as a win-win. Not only would richer countries get clothing for a much cheaper price, but poorer countries would get much-needed jobs. And so, as clothing stores began offering cheaper clothes to the public, consumers began spending considerably more when shopping, which drove stores to increase the amount of clothes manufactured altogether. This trend, known as “fast fashion,” allows major-labels to have new clothes on the rack every day, encouraging shoppers to stop in more often. And although this has caused immense growth for the companies themselves, it has simultaneously resulted in the exploitation of laborers in developing countries. Why? Because in order for H&M to offer such discounted clothing, they pressure the manufacturers abroad to pump out product at increasingly lower costs, which results in what we know as sweatshop labor.
Because not all sweatshop labor is necessarily slavery, unfreedom in this industry often comes from the exploitation of migrant workers through debt bondage. Now, debt bondage is a type of forced labor or labor trafficking experienced predominantly by migrant workers, and is defined as a person’s pledge of labor or services as security for the repayment for a debt or other obligation.
According to an account from the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Federation, migrant workers from places like Bangladesh are “recruited in their village by sub-agents who promise the opportunity for work abroad in order to earn significantly more money than would be possible in their rural community, or even in Dhaka. The employment fee is discussed with the family and they are asked to pay a deposit up front, with the remainder of the fee provided by the agent as a loan. […] Once workers are transferred to the host country their documentation is withheld by the employer, [… and] they are paid directly from the labour broker straight into a bank account of the recruitment agent. […] Almost all workers still owe money at the end of their working period.” This leaves workers trapped from debt, binding them to their recruiter, and leaving them in a state of perpetual slavery.
So, why did I go through the trouble of explaining all that at the FREE Project launch event? Because of all of the twenty-somethings in the world, the few who are able to afford more expensive clothing than what Zara can offer, most-likely attend a school like St. Thomas. Comprised mostly of young adults from upper-middle class or affluent families, many of my classmates are unaware of the atrocities committed by fashion-labels, and may actually be able to do something about it. Fashion industries go where the consumer goes, and if the consumer starts to shop exclusively at stores that manufacture ethically made clothing (Patagonia, People Tree), then the market will shift and ethical manufacturing will become far easier to obtain for the every-consumer. It happened with the organic food industry, and I believe it can happen here.