Thursday, October 9, 2014

Shipping Guilt Overseas

I'm currently traveling on business in California. Over dinner tonight I was reading an extraordinarily moving book edited by Ann Argersinger--The Triangle Fire: A Brief History With Documents. I had known the basic facts about this horrific episode in our history for many years, but the first-hand accounts leave you with tears in your eyes, even a century and more on.

Why does this matter today? Above all, it matters because the sorts of sweatshop oppression that were the norm on Washington Place in New York a century ago are still the norm in today's world. The Triangle tragedy may be more than a century ago; the sweatshop tragedy in Bangladesh is little over a year ago. That was only the highest profile of many, many appalling sweatshop tragedies in recent years--and, sadly, it does not seem that conditions have improved much in the eighteen months that have passed since over a thousand workers lost their lives at Rana Plaza. Seven of the companies that sourced products from the Rana Plaza sweatshops have made at least some contribution to the compensation fund; the others (more than twenty of them) have given nothing. And so it goes. With our tacit approval, an industry that relies overwhelmingly on near-slave labor forges forward.

We are used to the rhetoric of it being a bad thing to "ship jobs overseas." But even worse is when we ship our guilt overseas. Just as we allow ourselves to not think of how non-human animals are treated if they are hidden away in feedlots or dairy barns, we allow ourselves to not think of sweatshop oppression if it's in Bangladesh rather than Brooklyn. We are happy to reap the benefits; we're fine with the low, low prices of milk and eggs and shirts and jeans. But we would prefer not to think of what is done in order to make these things cheap--we would prefer to outsource the guilt.

What can be done? Press our own governments to act, yes. And speak up any way we can. But also press ourselves to think of these things--and not to reflexively buy the cheapest, or to buy any clothing without asking where it came from.

I am having to work to do this myself; it does take work to break the buying habits of a lifetime. But it can be done--just as we can give up factory farmed animal products, and keep going until we are vegan. If we push ourselves, we truly can make the world better--for the workers in sweatshops overseas, for non-human animals, for all of us.

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