Can We Stop Belittling People for Being Stuck in Exploitative Systems?

I drink an incredible volume of tea. While the women above might not have personally picked tea that I have drunk, they are part of the army of low-paid workers who labour in tea plantations across Asia, picking for between a dollar and two dollars a day, which is not much even when adjusted for regional costs of living. Picking tea, as with other agricultural labour, is extremely hard work — and as the person who took this photo pointed out in the description, tea pickers are well aware that tourists find them interesting, and they often demand payment for having their pictures taken. I don’t blame them; I’d want compensation for being viewed like a fascinating tourist attraction too.

Knowing that the tea supply chain is exploitative, I could make a conscious choice to stop drinking it. I could decide that tea wasn’t worth the suffering that went into each cup — except that the same could be said of essentially everything I consume. Everything in my fridge involved suffering. The clothes I am wearing, the cat bed Loki is curled up in, nearly everything I touch was produced by people who were likely exploited to some degree or another, at some point along the supply chain. It’s revolting, and I’m not saying that we should shrug and give up just because everything is awful, but I’m acknowledging a simple fact: We are all trapped in these oppressive systems together.

I favour recognising that and fighting them, working to improve conditions for workers, to change the market, to force companies to supply us with more ethical products, because that’s how I operate. I want to see change happening in the world, and I dream of someday sitting down to a cup of tea grown on a sustainable farm, handled by agricultural workers who received fair pay and benefits, processed by people who weren’t exploited, shipped ethically, dealt with at the distributor and packing facility by workers who get fair wages and good treatment. It’s my dream to be able to say the same of a pair of pants when I pull it on in the morning, to be able to take my medications without thinking of who suffered to produce them.

One thing I do not believe in doing, however, is in belittling people who are trapped in the same oppressive systems I am. When someone comments that sweatshop labour is terrible and it’s particularly appalling to see it used in the production of so-called ‘social justice’ products, for example, I think that’s a totally reasonable comment to make. It’s a reasonable comment to make in any context, honestly, not just criticism of where ‘this is what a feminist look like’ tees come from. Sweatshop labour is awful, yet, if you want to basically function in any way, you’re complicit in it, unless you want to go way, way, way off-grid, as in making your own tools (where are the supplies coming from, though?) to build your own house (with materials you personally harvest and work with, right down to the nails you forge or the wooden pins you carve), to growing your own garden (where’d those seeds come from, though), to making your own clothes and bedding and mattresses and…the list goes on, and the sources for the raw materials are not necessarily ethical.

I don’t see the point in labeling people as hypocritical when they criticise oppressive systems. If I did, I’d have to shut up about oppression myself, because I, too, am trapped in it. If you need to be totally outside of something to criticise it, in fact, everyone should just be quiet about exploitation in the agricultural industry, about sweatshops, about worker abuse in general. Because none of us is above all that; those ‘sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ products purchased at high price points often come with hidden costs that their purchasers are curiously disinterested in exploring, for example, and thus, even they, the ‘perfect ones,’ are still complicit in these systems.

Maybe someone can afford to make her own clothes and has made that a priority in her life, because she has the time, the skills, and the money. It’s likely that the textiles she’s using come from exploited sources, because it is extremely difficult to find ethical textiles, but at least she’s addressing one small component of the system. And that is great! I totally support her, and think it is wonderful that she does that, and wish more people could, and think it is fantastic when she offers to mentor and teach people who are interested. But my hackles can and will go up if she insists that everyone do the same, and that everyone who doesn’t should just shut up about the garment trade.

Because no. Because you do not get to rampantly belittle people who can’t achieve your personal level of perfection due to very real and understandable social, political, and personal obstacles. Everyone does what they can, and we are all in this fight together. Why should we be attacking people who are at least trying to be aware of issues, and, in many cases, trying to be self aware? Why aren’t we directing our energies at the systems that trap us? I am reminded, as I so often am, of the crabs in a bucket metaphor, and how many people seem more focused on tearing at each other than tearing down the systems that surround us. Together, we can smash through the walls of the bucket. Or we can just keep scrabbling at each other, hoping that no one gets out.

Image: Tea Pickers, Cisarua Bogor, Danamurthi Mahendra, Flickr