Between factory fires and building collapses, Bangladesh has been the scene of some truly horrific workplace disasters over the course of the last year or so. Incidents claiming the lives of hundreds of people have hit international headlines, horrifying members of the general public who are appalled by the working conditions exposed with these incidents. This has, of course, resulted in some calls for change, including demands that retailers sign working agreements to commit to better oversight of conditions in their factories. This will all fade from the radar soon, of course, and people will return to a state of willful ignorance and complacency.
The thing is that people have always known that disposable fashion is produced in poor working conditions. It doesn’t require much awareness to know that if you’re buying a garment for, say, $14, the workers who produce that garment are probably not making very good wages, and are likely labouring in poor conditions. That awareness is underscored by the fact that people have been highlighting problems with sweatshops and factories across the Global South for decades; right along the US border, for example, maquiladoras illustrate the high cost of cheap fashion, and provide ample evidence of what working conditions are really like for the people who make the clothes we wear.
It’s not that conditions in Bangladesh were totally hidden and people had no idea where their clothes came from. All of this information was actually quite openly on display, especially for those who wanted to take a minute to add the numbers up. Cheap clothes equal cheap workers, because you cannot make goods cheaply without skimping out along the production line. And clothes are produced overseas because they’re cheaper to make there: the whole reason US-made goods are rare is because manufacturers prefer to take their business to countries with fewer worker protections and a lower standard of living.
Workers don’t just make less in the Global South because of differences in the cost of living, but also because their employers exploit them. I would call this an open secret, but that would be an insult, because there’s nothing all that secretive about it. People knew, and they just didn’t care. People were wholly aware of the cost of the garments they were wearing and discarding, but decided they didn’t want to invest energy in addressing that cost or using their power as consumers to fight the use of disposable labour in nations like Bangladesh, like Mexico, like Thailand.
It doesn’t escape notice, of course, that this use of cheap labour is happening outside the US, where people can put distance between themselves and the exploitation, imagining themselves outside and beyond it. And, of course, that the vast majority of labourers in these conditions are people of colour, whom many white people seem to regard as some sort of legitimately exploitable resource; some even go so far as to act like they’re doing ‘them’ a favour by providing ‘them’ with steady factory work and wages.
Disconnects like this are painful to watch, and they’re frustrating. While people in the United States dance around the issue, those advocating for better working conditions gnash their teeth in frustration because they can’t even get people to acknowledge the fact that workers are exploited, let alone join campaigns to end such exploitation. With people burying their heads in the sand, it’s impossible to pull them out and force them to engage with the social issues they’re determinedly avoiding. It’s a case of sticking your fingers in your ears and yodeling that you can’t hear anyone around you, thinking this absolves you of any responsibilities, when in fact all it does is make you look like a willfully dense person who doesn’t care about other human beings.
Because fundamentally, people wanted their cheap garments. They wanted cheap fashion, they wanted to be able to have lots of clothes with bright, shiny, edgy designs, they wanted to constantly rotate their wardrobes, and thus, they didn’t want to protest suspiciously low prices and ask questions about where their clothes were coming from. And women were caught in a particularly sticky spot, given the high demands placed on them when it comes to ‘looking professional’ and how that requires substantial investment in workwear—for them, cheap fashion was sometimes the only way to dress for work, even if they were uncomfortably aware of the human costs behind the clothes they were wearing.
This failure of caring in the United States should be viewed contextually. People wonder why other nations are wary of the US, and don’t necessarily think of it as a compassionate nation? Our tendency to exploit the rest of the world for what we want would play a rather important role in why we are perceived that way. It’s hard to trust a nation where the citizenry seems quite comfortable living lifestyles that require exploitation to be even vaguely sustainable; here we are, wearing our cheap fashion, living the dream, all with niggling thoughts about why our fashion is so cheap.
These uneasy stirrings might be denied by a lot of people, particularly those who might want to think of themselves as socially conscious, who want to say they were genuinely shocked by conditions in Bangladesh, but it’s absurd to pretend this information wasn’t available, and a blatant lie to act like abusive working conditions come as surprising news. Not when they were very well-documented, not when anyone could put the pieces together and read the writing on the wall, not when we live in a country founded on exploitation. Not when we live in a country that still freely abuses workers: if we can’t take care of our own, what makes you think we’d do any better with overseas workers?