Published on
the Toronto Star

Bangladeshi Sweatshops and Why We Love Them

It has been a tough week for stingy Canadians who wear clothes, with three media exposés of hideous conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops.

It has been a tough week for stingy Canadians who wear clothes, with three media exposés of hideous conditions in Bangladeshi sweatshops where human beings sew clothes for the lowest wages on the planet for, well, people like me.

Reading it, watching it, wearing it, writing about it is like treading in a trough of hypocrisy, much of it my own. Money is a fraught crucial intense subject. It’s like sex but without the fun and yet somehow one can never get enough of it.

I selected a uniform in which to type this. Would it be the $30 Made-in-Portugal sweatshirt from Zara’s boys department? I have shuddered seeing living conditions outside Lisbon. Or the $150 sweater from Reiss? It makes reasonable junk fashion in Romania for the Duchess of Cornwall but says flatly — and perhaps admirably — that it refuses to operate in Bangladesh, but those Romanian factories aren’t pretty. No, I’ll wear a very good heavy cotton Made-in-Cambodia T-shirt which I bought ITALon saleITAL in Joe Fresh a year ago for the horrifyingly low price of $2.97.

“I believe my purchasing decisions will help change the world but they will only ease my own conscience.”Support Cambodia, was my thinking. Bombed and permanently poisoned by the U.S., and nearly finished off by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia needs a market for its products. But what feeble support does this price provide?

I cannot win. When I deplore Walmart’s cheap detestable products and employment practices, readers attack me for assaulting poor people. It’s all I can afford, they tell me. Canadians worship the god of cheap.

I thought I was depressed by reports from the Star, the Globe and The Fifth Estate (“The Race to the Bottom”) on Bangladeshi sweatshops until I read this ill-judged headline in the Star, “Bangladesh’s tanneries make the sweatshops look good.”

OK then. Why was I so worried about this lovely nine-year-old sweatshop girl, Meem, whose conscientious work and Co-Worker of the Year kindnesses to a Star reporter had me twisted like an emotional corkscrew? Apparently Meem has it good. Life can get worse. She could be in a tannery.


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And then we have the stories about unpaid internships in Canada, where students clean hotel rooms, unpaid, for something to put on their resumé and thus multinational hotel chains clean up. One driven young Vancouver woman, told the Star she worked as a chambermaid for three months, unpaid, in 2011, which is dreadful. And then I read that she will enrol at Humber College and do the same unpaid “internship” again because she doesn’t mind the work and wants a hotel career. So it is only theoretically dreadful.

Her work will keep wages low for other chambermaids who work for food and shelter. She hasn’t thought this far ahead. But, if you’ve read Heads in Beds (“Housekeeping is one of the hardest jobs in the world”), a revelatory book about the hotel industry, good for her because she will then treat chambermaids kindly, having known what they endure.

Unpaid Canadian internships should be banned, as should Bangladeshi child labour, but students are trying to climb into the workforce and Meem and her family need her job. Meem herself is quite chipper. She isn’t Dickens, 12, sent to the blacking factory in 1824.

It is exhausting to see this, to be sent up and down a sliding scale of misery burdened with the idea that all work is awful, except when it is more awful, when clearly it all depends on context. I pity Meem but if she were to lose her 12-hours-a-day, cramped ill-lit job, Meem would weep.

Or, as stated, she could stretch hides in a tannery. Tanneries were awful in England in Shakespeare’s time and awful in the Victorian era. Bangladesh can’t afford to mechanize tanneries (its big problem is flooding caused by global warming) and centuries later Dickens should have been thrilled his shiftless father didn’t stick him in one.

Oh, that ungrateful Dickens.

I believe my purchasing decisions will help change the world but they will only ease my own conscience. Human beings are human. They try to be good, they excel at being bad. I admire honest work. I am left speechless by how much more there is to say.

Heather Mallick

Heather Mallick

Heather Mallick is a Canadian columnist, author and lecturer. She writes a twice weekly column for the Toronto Star, an occasional column for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website, and a monthly column for The Guardian's website.

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