Blood Diamonds and Sweatshop Shirts

Over the summer, the film Blood Diamonds told the story of the forced-mining of precious stones, often at the point of a gun or machete. Despite regulations to the diamond market, it's not known for certain how many of the stones on the market are "dirty diamonds." But diamonds are far from being the only commodity sold in this country bearing the stain of human suffering. Last week the London Observer reported that children, some as young as 10, had been found in conditions "close to slavery" at a Delhi textile factory, making shirts destined for American and European Gap Kids shops. The Observer reported the children recounted stories of being lured away from their families, and of long hours of unpaid work forced from them by threats and beatings.

The kids were found sitting amid piles of beaded tops marked with serial numbers that Gap verified belonged to its inventory. These particular hand-stitched shirts were supposed to have brought in $20 to $40 a piece and would have been shipped in time for the beginning of the holiday trade.

I'm sure this image stopped many mothers in their tracks, just as it stopped me: a group of Indian kids the size of my 10-year-old son. I could easily picture them. But instead of skating around the park on their Heelies or playing with their American Girl dolls, they were crowded in a dark, filthy room, their small hands forced to fasten beads and sequins to shirts destined for the backs of children much better off than they. Children like mine.

Any mother I know would feel the same compassion I felt in contemplating this image. But people like me-which is to say, middle-class professional mothers-read stories like this and we wonder, "I'm trying to reduce my family's carbon footprint; I'm trying to buy locally grown organic produce; I'm turning off light bulbs left and right and throwing away our incandescents; now I have to figure out how to find ethically manufactured clothes for my kids? How?" As my friend Julie said: try to find a cotton shirt that's made in America, and it's damn near impossible. Try to find a cotton shirt made by unionized American workers, and you're out of luck.

So what can we do?

First: Acknowledge that these children were working as slaves.

My husband, who teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh, says many of his students believe slavery doesn't exist anymore. His response: maybe chattel-ownership and marketing of others' bodies is rarer than it was, but labor coerced through physical violence or threat, without compensation or acknowledgment, amounts to slavery.

The Observer's own editorial that ran the day of their report claimed that corporations will opt to cut expenses through subcontracting production to companies who exploit human beings in horrific ways-as long as Western consumers demand clothing at ever cheaper prices, with no concern as to how it's made. What is protected in this scenario are customers' desires, executives' compensation, investors' dividends-and public ignorance, because what is rendered invisible is the labor, and the attendant pain and deprivation of the laborer. The shirt's label may note, "Made in India," but by whom? And under what circumstances? We're not invited to know that the shirt we've brought to the cash register was made by a child slave, so it's not part of our buying choices when we pull out our credit cards.

It's also difficult to understand news these days in a concrete-which is to say, real-manner. So much of our information comes to us in "virtual" ways. Television and Internet reports are disembodied, and their brevity allows us not to feel the reality of the news. But if we pause to think, to admit that these children were working as slaves-real slaves-then it becomes impossible for us to continue to support this kind of production, and we become committed to seeking out other ways of clothing ourselves and our families.

Second: Ask hard questions of sellers and corporations.

One obvious response to the Observer story is simply never to buy another piece of clothing bearing a Gap brand (including Old Navy and Banana Republic). To avert that response (and perhaps in an honest attempt to eliminate child slavery from its production lines), Gap has announced plans to develop "sweatshop free" labeling for their clothing, a program that would open the firm to prosecution if a similar situation were to be discovered again. A Gap spokesperson said over the weekend, "Under no circumstances is it acceptable for children to produce or work on garments."

If I had been a reporter at that press conference, I would have asked a hard question: "Is this about prohibiting child-labor, or about ending abusive, coercive working conditions?" The statement is a convenient reframing of the problem away from child-slavery-it could read as an apology for having "hired" children. The fact is, though, that the age of a "child" differs across cultures, and in many societies, families depend upon the income children earn from legitimate jobs. The important distinction in the Gap story is not that that the children were working, but that they were working under illegal, abusive conditions.

If they had been paid $20 per hour and given a clean workplace, would it have been the same story? If Gap eliminates children from its source lines but abuses the adults working for them, has the situation improved?

Gap is surely not alone among garment-industry corporations that hire (wittingly or unwittingly) subcontractors that abuse human rights to keep their prices low. Such abuses occur not just in the garment and gem industries: tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, cotton, honey, bananas, and other commodities that form the bulk of exports from developing countries are also at risk of being processed through abusive labor practices.

It's incumbent upon the buyer to find safe sources of clothing and food. That means asking hard questions of salespeople, and asking them repeatedly when the answers given are not adequate. It means communicating to corporate executives the message that products made by inhumanely-treated workers are unacceptable-un-buyable, period. It means demanding that they abide by fair-trade standards.

Asking questions also means finding out about fair-trade buying options, and then committing to those despite the fact that their stock may be a bit unfamiliar or more expensive than unsafe vendors. The Fair Trade Federation lists retail and wholesale sellers and suppliers who abide by fair-trade standards (

Third: Ask hard questions of ourselves.

If a cotton shirt that is safely made is needed but is unavailable-if the shirt our child needs isn't free of the stain of the sweatshop-then perhaps expectations need to be revised.

Are brand-new clothes necessary? Many neighborhoods have thrift shops, charity shops, or vintage or resale clothing shops that carry good-quality-sometimes designer-clothing, shoes and accessories. Most have standards about the items they accept and usually clean the items before resale. Patronizing these stores not only cuts the enormous demand for new clothing that leads to sweatshops, but it also recycles items that are perfectly usable and saves them from being thrown out or moldering in someone's closet. Buying "pre-owned" things takes persistence and luck, but it's a joy when a needed item turns up. Ten blocks from our Gap stands the charity shop that supports our city's women's hospital. I stop in about twice a month, often finding clothes for my nieces. One day, I unearthed a slate-gray suit. Surprised by how beautifully the lines fell and how fine the fabric felt, I happily forked over $75. At home, the tag revealed it's a Narciso Rodriguez, a four-piece set originally bought by another woman at Bergdorf's for upwards of $2,000. It's not brand new, it's not the latest fashion, and it's not uniquely fitted to my figure-all those things the ads tell us are important. But its design and fabric are splendid, and it will last me a lifetime. Because I'm not ashamed to wear hand-me-downs, I now have a high-quality business suit.

The clothing in retail shops is called "ready-to-wear" because people used to make most of their own clothing, rather than buying ready-made clothes. Making clothes-or growing food-may require a sacrifice of convenience, but it guarantees high quality and fair production, as well as appreciation for the production process. Admittedly, when I was single and childless I used to sew outerwear and business clothes, but now I barely have time to make pajamas and sweatpants for my son, and his Halloween costumes-but they're a fraction of the cost of a rental, and their quality is much higher than those that come even from party stores. In addition, knitting has been declared "the new yoga," and, along with crocheting and even spinning, the comeback of these ancient crafts has spurred the growth of yarn shops and enormous virtual and real knitting communities. It takes time for Julie and me to knit caps, scarves, and sweaters for our families, but the rewards are abundant: good friendship, an appreciation for slowing life down a bit, and the achievement of making something ourselves.

One of the most meaningful ways to revise expectations is to do with fewer things. I think most of us could admit truthfully that we have too much stuff. I know I have too much, and so does my son. It's a good exercise for both of us when I help him go through his clothes-drawers and toy-bins two or three times a year and gather things to give to others whose needs are greater. Revising my expectations further fosters compassion for people who have less than I, and helps me have gratitude for what I do have.

It's important to be aware that none of these options may directly, or immediately, help the children in the sweatshops. What they and their families need most is income that employment under fair and safe conditions would provide-even if the wage is lower than we would expect for ourselves. But educating ourselves about the ways in which the things we need are produced-as long as we are committed to living according to what we learn-will effect change in the long run.

Jennifer Matesa is a freelance writer with a focus on families and health. Her first book, Navel-Gazing: The Days and Nights of a Mother in the Making, won a community-service award from Lamaze.

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