Social Responsibility and Clothing Manufacturing
Over the past few years, news media have reported on clothing factories
burning in Bangladesh that resulted in the loss of multiple lives. These
factories were engaged in making garments for department and clothing
stores located across the USA and Canada. In an earlier time, most of
the garments sold in North American markets were domestically made. As
international trade developed, it became cheaper to produce many types
of garments overseas than domestically. The Bangladesh tragedies have
prompted calls that North American clothing stores adopt standards of
social responsibility when it comes to the manufacture of
While safety standards inside Bangladeshi garment factories may be below
the safety standards of North American factories, only a very small
percentage of their factories have burned and resulted in tragedy.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century, clothing factories
burned in New York City too, with similarly tragic consequences. The
size of the market in New York sustained several clothing factories, and
consumers at the time switched to purchasing garments from competing
factories. The local market had a built-in mechanism to encourage
factory owners to avoid tragedies.
Worldwide, the textile industry is a large employer that pays low wages.
In India and a few other Asian countries, some textile factories that
produce carpets operate on forced child labour. Shortly after India
gained independence from Britain, then-Prime Minister Nehru chose to
rely on socialist economics to develop India’s economy. But India’s
economy languished and there were frequent famines.
While Nehru’s government allowed some private industry to operate,
India’s foray into socialist economics occurred without economic
development precedents in a functioning free-market economy. The
partitioning of India by the British invited tragedy that spread to the
northwest and northeast of India. Several other Asian nations adopted
socialist economics after gaining independence from colonial rule
without relying on economic development precedents from a functioning
free market economy. As a result, prostitution and child abandonment are
common. Homeless and abandoned children are often drafted into textile
factories or into the sex trade.
“While children may be poorly
treated in carpet factories, the alternative would be to
live on the streets and eke out a living by scrounging for
food in garbage cans, the result of their families either
having abandoned them or being too poor to provide for
The low cost of production at Asian garment factories is the result of
the low wages paid to Asian garment workers, in turn the result of a
lack of employment opportunities in economies that governments have
either mismanaged or overregulated. In poor nations such as Bangladesh,
there is massive competition for small numbers of comparatively
low-paying jobs in the garment industry. The low cost of labour actually
undercuts the cost of introducing greater automation into the garment
and textile industries.
Children usually sew by hand using needle and thread in most Asian
carpet making factories. While children may be poorly treated in those
carpet factories, the alternative would be to live on the streets and
eke out a living by scrounging for food in garbage cans, the result of
their families either having abandoned them or being too poor to provide
for them. The existence of child labour laws does little to curtail
child labour in carpet factories located in regions where (poorly paid)
state officials who oversee child welfare are open to bribery.
While western social activists seek to improve working conditions for
Asian garment workers and remove children from forced labour in Asian
carpet factories and the sex trade, the economic problems that exist in
those nations today are the result of decades of government control over
national and local economies.
Historically and over a period of centuries and decades, the textile
industry has undergone improvements in productivity, that is, in daily
output per worker. At one time, workers would hand-roll clumps of
sheep’s wool or balls of cotton picked from cotton plants into thread
that other workers would knit into a garment. The development of the
cotton gin, the loom and the foot-treadle driven sewing machine greatly
improved worker productivity.
While much of the North American textile industry has closed, viable and
competitive segments of that industry still operate domestically, often
using automated or semi-automated technology while producing reels of
fabric, including fabric for yacht sails and for gigantic tents. But
until and unless automated machines can produce garments at competitive
prices domestically, most garment-making will remain overseas.
From the same author
The Challenge of the Immigrant Worker
314 – September 15, 2013)
No Room on the Train (Or on the Bus)
314 – September 15, 2013)
School Bullying and the New York Male Teacher
313 – August 15, 2013)
The Federal-Provincial Debate over Job Skills
313 – August 15, 2013)
Much Ado about Fixing the Price of Chocolate
312 – June 15, 2013)
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