Recently, Elissa Strauss wrote a post about how most of our clothes are likely made in sweatshops. I thought of the issue again as I woke up each morning this week to see the death toll rise in the gruesome wake of the collapsed clothing factory in Bangladesh. It’s now 700.
In the ashes of this unsafe factory where Western companies had contracts, many American Jews will naturally see the long shadow of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a product of companies’ decades-long “race to the bottom” away from safety standards and minimum wages. We inevitably remember the dead women lying on the street and the brave young women who organized and agitated in the wake of horror to get safe labor laws on the books — and unions recognized. But this calamity in Bangladesh also brings to mind a more recent pain: there was the image of the wall of “missing” workers outside the factory which so vividly recalled the missing person posters that plastered lower Manhattan after 9/11.
In all its evocations of our own tragic history, will this be the event that hits home? Headlines are calling the collapse a “final straw” and “catalyst.” I hope it is, and truly wonder if this loss thousands of miles away will inspire a new wave of activism for corporate accountability in terms of how are clothes are made. We above all have to advocate for sensible labor laws worldwide, the right to organize and corporate transparency. I also keep thinking that there must be a way to push with our wallets — at least for some part of the market — to uplift sustainable, ethical manufacturing that appeals to consumers the same way sustainable agriculture does. I know that many people, myself included, would pay more for a “sweatshop free” label just as we pay for organic or environmentally safe products.
I love shopping for great deals as much as the next young Jewish woman in a big city —probably more, if I’m being honest. But I am also part of the generation that was passionate about ending sweatshop practices just before the foreign wars in Iraq and Aghanistan drew the energy of much of the activist community. My last summer in high school was spent in a sort of anti-sweatshop bootcamp; a large bunch of us leafleted in front of Niketown and blitzed New York with anti-sweatshop flyers, believing this to be the cause of our lifetime. During the holidays in that pre-9/11 era, thousands upon thousands of young people would gather in midtown to walk past major retailers and call to the collective conscience.
In recent years, the struggle has continued. Students have taken each spring as an opportunity to sit in and demonstrate to get their universities to comply with fair labor standards both for campus workers and branded clothing. Futhermore, in partnership with activists, small factories devoted to fair labor practices are also opening, providing an alternative for ordering clothing in bulk.
Where the youth lead, all of society should follow. Let’s take this somber moment to rededicate ourselves to ending sweatshop practices worldwide, and not forget the blood that goes into our bargains.