Sweatshop Labor is Wrong — Unless the Shoes are Cute

I sit typing on a Samsung laptop that probably contains minerals sold to fuel a conflict. Every few minutes, when I hear a buzz on the desk in front of me, I lean over and push a button on my iPhone, which may have been put together by a worker in such horrific factory conditions that 13 such workers committed suicide in 2010. I am currently wearing a shirt produced in Bangladesh and pants produced in Cambodia, two countries that do not exactly have stellar safety records in their garment factories (see here and here). I assume my underwear is produced in a similarly situated country, but at the moment it’s a little tough to check. All of this, and I am a lawyer who spends most of his waking hours thinking about and working on human rights and democratic development.

I attended the a Business and Human Rights Conference a few weeks ago at West Virginia University’s School of Law and was met with some harrowing news. The verdict is in, and people do not really care whether or not the clothes they wear can be traced to child labor, slave labor, sweatshop labor, or any other horrific condition one can imagine. People do not really care whether the laptop they type and surf the web on or the phone they text, call, and play Words With Friends on (I’m still refusing to download Candy Crush) have minerals that have fueled conflict around the world (particularly in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, as brilliantly detailed by the Enough Project here). We all do it. In one telling example, for a Wall Street Journal story this May, a Gap worker in NYC was asked if customers were concerned about buying clothes made in Bangladesh where garment factory fires have become both all too commonplace and all too deadly. No, he replied, “they don’t really ask about it.”

It would be easy to claim this is due to a lack of knowledge. After all, a light shined on blood diamonds created the Kimberley Process that (theoretically) ensures the sale of diamonds does not fuel bloody civil wars. This is simply untrue. Study after study (here and here are some examples, one of which provides the name for this article) has shown that consumers, regardless of level of knowledge, can easily convince themselves that the value of the product they are purchasing is greater than the nameless, faceless workers or fighters half a world away.

However, just in case we still think knowledge is an issue, here is a quick refresher.

While a decade ago the term “Conflict Minerals” referred mainly to the above diamonds, the category has expanded to include a number of minerals that are vital in the production of electronics in addition to precious gems and metals. Currently, as defined by the conflict mineral section of the Dodd-Frank Act, the main culprits are gold and the “three t’s” of tin, tungsten, and tantalum, all of which are vital in the function of the laptop and cell phone I mentioned above.

In the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I should lay off the iPhone here, since according to the Enough Project, Apple, along with Intel, Motorola, and HP, have been “pioneers of progress” in ensuring the minerals used in their products do not fund conflicts, but while I wish I could pretend that was a reason I purchased it, it simply isn’t.

This does not mean Apple is the pinnacle of corporate social responsibility. While the company has been a pioneer in not fueling horrible conflicts in the DRC, they work with subcontractors linked to such inhumane treatment that suicide is not uncommon. The same is true for many clothing companies, who source from textile plants in places with considerably more lax labor laws than America or much of the West. The results of such labor laws can be child labor, slave labor, labor with such long hours and such low wages that it can amount to slavery or indentured servitude, and the aforementioned factory fires with extremely high death rates. This varies country to country and is well beyond the reach of this article, but it is worth taking a look at the wardrobe and then googling “(whatever country) labor” to see what comes up.  

Perhaps, by bringing attention to the problem and to the fact that people (myself included) just don’t seem to care, it is possible to make people care more in the future. Otherwise it is necessary to go beyond “name and shame.” Among the alternatives suggested at the conference was linking the receipt of valuable government contracts to adequate disclosure on sourcing and/or participation in various civil society programs to ensure protections. If the government will not award contracts to companies that encourage dreadful labor conditions, the all-important bottom line will be affected. There have also been attempts to dig into the market share of companies that do not adequately protect against abuses. Some of these attempts include the Fair Trade movement, the Rainforest Alliance, and various individual products such as the Fairphone, released last month. A reduced market share would also affect the bottom line. There is no guarantee that any of this will work but as it appears knowing about child labor will not deter people from buying cute shoes or an iPhone and knowing about horrific conflicts will not deter even human rights attorneys from buying a laptop, what will is a wide open question.