Re: Sweatshops

by The Inmate

As civilization moves forward, the shoe is bound to pinch in places, and it’s absurd to pretend that any one is responsible personally.

—Henry Wilcox from E.M. Forster’s Howards End

I do not like politics.  I have little respect for politicians.  As a general rule I do not comment on political news for these reasons: it’s difficult to know if the media is giving us the truth; most of it doesn’t interest me; a lot of it is just too depressing; and I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to politics and world affairs.  I rarely watch the news or read a daily newspaper.  I prefer books rather than articles published to fill in space between advertisements.  I have always liked the advice Paul once gave to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands . . .”[italics mine]  It’s not the sort of ambition that gets touted these days, but it is a worthwhile one.

I was, however, saddened and angry to hear that trade barriers had been lifted for China.  I know the argument that this will ultimately improve employment conditions for the Chinese.  Assuming this is true it is the word “ultimately” that bothers and depresses me.  Wendell Berry in his new book, Life is  a Miracle, quotes a letter to the New York Times  that effectively and subtly explains the position of the corporation: “While change is difficult for those affected, the larger more efficient business organization will eventually emerge and industry consolidation will occur to the benefit of the many.”  How quaint.  Such keen foresight certainly should not be questioned by a delivery guy with no business ambitions, but I shall thwart tradition and custom to do so anyway.  What about the present conditions that make life hell for the 20th century sweatshop worker? Sweatshop workers are not reveling in the knowledge that their efforts will benefit everybody, save themselves, at some future date that has yet to be disclosed.  The environment that Chinese workers endure today is no different than what millions of workers endured during the 19th century:  long hours(15 hours a day), low wages(as low as 14 cents an hour, which is why Hasbro closed up shop in Tijuana, Mexico where they were paying their workers a whopping 1.80 an hour ) and horrible conditions(There are many reports of deaths because of safety features omitted to control costs.).  I know it is not this way for all the Chinese, but it is for far too many.  What kind of life is that?

This side of business is evil.  These executives must know what conditions are like in the countries where they build their factories.  If they do not, it is because they have chosen ignorance to ease their consciences and fill their bank accounts.  The pure(not in a moral sense) businessman is incapable of making good decisions and has convinced himself that practicality divorced from compassion is a moral virtue.  It’s not.

I was looking for a tape measure the other day because mine had recently broke.  I wanted a 25 footer, the cheapest one I could find.  I found it, bought it and brought it home.  After reading an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune about sweatshops in China I started thinking.  The tape measure was made in Taiwan.  I have no idea what the conditions are like in the factory for the workers who constructed it, but it does make me wonder how a fairly nice tape measure could sell for under five dollars when all the others were ten and above.  Most of my son’s toys were made in China.  If they came from sweatshops, I wonder what those workers think of those toys and what they think of those of us who buy them?

Part of me wants to resolve for myself and suggest to others not to buy things that have come from sweatshops.  This is a difficult thing to determine, I realize, and millions of people would need to change their habits in order to affect China and other countries.  I doubt this will happen, but it might and it is often the many little steps toward change that eventually add up to something significant.  The problem could be solved easily in one sense.  Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Ridiculous Man states the solution clearly: “And really how simple it all is: in one day, in one hour, everything could be arranged at once!  The main thing is to love your neighbour as yourself–that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters. . . . If only we all wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.”  History makes it painfully clear that we don’t all want it.  It is excellent advice for individuals, but, it would seem, not society as a whole.  Society as whole lacks the discipline to govern itself.  That’s why we have laws.

The men in power, and it does appear to be mainly men, who could change things don’t want to.  Money guides their decisions.  Absurd rationalizations justify them.  Force seems to be the only alternative.  They could be coierced by laws, economic penalties, bad press, their(dare I hope such a thing) consciences, their spouses, their children, their employees, their colleagues and whatever or whoever else will be able to bend their debauched souls into making the right decisions.

I will close with another quote from Howards End.  Of Henry Wilcox it is said,

But he must be one of those men who have reconciled science with religion,” said Helen slowly. “I don’t like those men. They are scientific themselves, and talk of the survival of the fittest, and cut down the salaries of their clerks, and stunt the independence of all who may menace their comfort, but yet they believe that somehow good — and it is always that sloppy ‘somehow’ — will be the outcome, and that in some mystical way the Mr. Basts of the future will benefit because the Mr. Basts of today are in pain.

works cited or referenced:

  • Forster, E.M., Great Novels of E. M. Forster: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, Howards End, Caroll & Graff Publishers, Inc., New York, 1992, pp. 722, 723.  The quotes and this information were obtained online from the Public Domain Modern English Text Collection, distributed by the Humanities Text Initiative, University of Michigan, 1993.  They can be found at:
  • Calbreath, Dean, “Chinese sweatshops key sticking point for lifting trade barriers,” The San Diego Union-Tribune, Sunday, May 14, 2000, A-1, A-19, Lin Gu, a Beijing-based free-lance journalist, also contributed to the article.
  • I Thessalonians 4:11
  • Berry, Wendell, Life is a Miracle; An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Counterpoint, Washington D.C., a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2000,  pp. 52-53.
  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor, Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” translated by David Magarshack, Perennial Library, Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1968, pg. 738.


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