Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children. —Sitting Bull
I came across an article this morning from Darragh MacIntyre of the BBC program, Panorama. I’m going to quote him rather heavily, starting with this:
I’d been told that child labour was endemic in Turkey. But I wasn’t prepared for the reality of it. Or the scale of it. One basement workshop was almost entirely staffed with children, many of whom couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old, the very picture of Dickensian misery.
We’ve talked about this before here and here, both just months ago. While fast fashion retailer H&M got a bit riled that we dare to mention them in an article, no one else really seemed to care. Neither article received many reads, no shares, hardly even a shrug. If I didn’t know better, I might get the impression that those of you reading don’t give a damn about the plight of children.
And maybe you don’t care. At least, not about those children. After all, we are too often talking about refugee children. In this particular case, the focus is on Syrian refugee children. We’ve already, as a country, fumbled the political football on that situation. As millions of families, many with very small children, continue to flee cities such as Aleppo, will we similarly fail them as they rush headlong into economic situations where child labor is their only hope for survival?
Look at the pictures of that previous baby above. She’s six-years-old now and enjoying first grade. She’s lucky. She’s white. She’s American. She’s well cared for. But not every child is so fortunate.
Is This Our Problem?
From the BBC:
It was just before 08:00. A group of people had gathered on a street corner on the outskirts of Istanbul, all desperate for a day’s work. …
We filmed through the blacked-out windows of our van a dozen yards away as a middleman picked this day’s workforce, selecting them one by one. Those who were chosen boarded a bus to take them to a factory.
We know now that up to seven of the workers on board were Syrian refugees. One was just fifteen. Another, we’ll call him Omar, was our source.
Later that evening, Omar met up with me. He showed me the labels from the clothes he’d been working on, that day. I recognised them instantly. So would you. The brand could hardly be better-known in the UK.
Americans are very good at looking at such stories and responding curtly with, “That’s not my problem.” Unless it is happening quite literally in our own backyard, we distance ourselves from any problems or issues that anyone else in the world might be having. We are, as a society, extremely well versed in this sort of denial.
So whose problem is this? If it is not ours, since we’re the one buying the clothes and demanding that there be more and more of them every time we shop, then where does the blame lie? Do we fault Syria for having a horrendous leader with no qualms about killing his own people? Should we blame Turkey, whose recent crackdown has made it even more difficult for refugees to find work there? Or do we blame the fashion labels whose names appear on the collars for the clothing being sewn together by these young children?
Certainly, there is plenty enough blame to go around for everyone to take a share. What’s missing is anything resembling responsibility.
How Bad Could It Be?
As we discovered with our articles earlier this year, if one names a brand and calls them out for contracting suppliers that use child/slave labor, they get quite upset. They’ll tell you about their inspections and how rigidly they monitor the companies who sew their clothes. However, consider what Mr. MacIntyre discovered:
All the brands I contacted about this programme say they regularly inspect the factories making their clothes to guarantee standards. Some of these audits are unannounced. But the Syrian boys explained how the factories got round this problem.
When the auditors arrive, they are hidden out of sight. And when the auditors leave, they go back to work. As simple as that. Some of the brands acknowledge the inherent failings in the auditing process and are now trying to tie up with trade unions and NGOs to combat abuses.
Other factories may never be visited by auditors because as far as the brands are concerned, they don’t make their clothes. They’re part of the chain of sub-contractors who make up much of the garment industry in Turkey.
They take orders from so-called first-tier factories – official suppliers to the brands – but often without the knowledge of the brands themselves.
This is where you’ll find the worst abuses of Syrian refugees and children. We decided to follow delivery vans from one of the first-tier factories hoping they would lead us down their supply chain.
Our plan was successful but also darkly disappointing. We filmed outside one of the sub-contractors as a small boy carried and dragged bags of material as big as himself to one of the vans. He couldn’t have been more than 12.
Twelve-years-old. Are you good with that? Does it bother you in the least that the very garment you are wearing right now was very likely pieced together by a child who should have been in middle school? Sure, there are laws, and there are inspections so that labels and retailers have plenty of excuses for saying that their clothes are not part of the problem. But as the BBC investigation discovers, at least some of those inspections are practically meaningless. They might disrupt a plant’s production for a few minutes, but they don’t prevent children from being continuously employed when they should be in school.
It Couldn’t Happen Here, There Are Laws
As Americans, we find it far too easy to sit back in our comfortable chairs, in our nice, warm homes, wearing our comfortable clothes, and think that we are immune. Certainly, nothing like what we see in Turkey could ever happen here. Our kids are safe. There are laws.
Funny, there are laws against child labor in Turkey, too. There were similar laws in Syria. When the people in charge of a country don’t care about those laws, however, they are easily ignored. When profit is given a higher regard than humanity, this is the result. For all the talk about how wonderful a “free market” is and how that government should stay the hell out of business concerns, Turkey shows us what happens when a “free market” is not sufficiently regulated.
Stop and think about all the rhetoric you’ve heard during this election cycle, not only from the Republican candidate but just as fervently from the Libertarian candidate. Both are quite sure that we need less government oversight, that regulation is strangling our ability to compete internationally. Why? Because American companies are punished, severely, if they employ twelve-year-olds. American companies are fined and sometimes forced to close if they do not pay their employees a minimum wage that is already well below a livable level. Both teh Republican and Libertarian candidates would happily remove any and all restrictions from American manufacturers so that they could “better compete in an international market.”
So yes, the very thing that we see happening in Turkey could happen here. There are far too many people who would support that kind of “free market” thinking.
One final quote from the article:
Our evidence confirms that big fashion brands are profiting from refugees and their children. All the brands involved say they are completely opposed to child labour and any exploitation of Syrian refugees.
But our investigation shows they sometimes don’t know how or where their clothes are being made. And until the brands know exactly who is making their clothes, then this type of exploitation is almost certain to continue.
Fashion brands hold a lot of the moral obligation for making sure their clothes are being assembled under the proper conditions, that employees are being paid a just and livable wage and that children are in school where they belong. If the inspections are not working, and they’re obviously not, then different means need to be found or different providers need to be contracted to ensure that no child/slave labor is involved in assembling any piece of clothing, anywhere, ever.
At the same time, though, we have a moral obligation as consumers to help put an end to this nonsense. We have to pay attention to where our clothes are being made. It doesn’t matter if you’re paying $2500 for a dress or $25 for its knockoff, both are just as likely to have been assembled in a sweatshop. There is no reason to tolerate this situation, and the more than we do the more pressure we put on legitimate and honest manufacturers to cheat as well. When domestic companies are not able to compete with ridiculously low wages, they place political pressure on our leaders to remove the restrictions that keep them from doing exactly the same.
We have been extremely fortunate over the past hundred years or so that our children don’t have to worry about being enslaved by a manufacturer. That situation could change in a heartbeat with your vote. If we elect a President and a Congress that is committed to removing government regulations, or ignoring the ones already in place, we end up with employers who are exactly like those in Turkey.
Your children, your grandchildren, could become slaves.
I don’t know how to put it any more blunt than that. The situation is right there in front of your face. Americans hold a responsibility not only to our children but to children around the world. We cannot allow this continue, whether in Turkey or Bangladesh, and we certainly cannot allow it to begin, again, in the US.
The solution starts with your vote. Vote carefully.