23 August 2006

Helping the Helpless

It has come to my notice within the past 6 months how many of our clothes are created in sweatshop factories overseas. These factories are characterized by unpaid forced overtime (some of this overtime resulting in faintings and other problems), wages less than the cost of living, sexual harrassment, child labor, and other monstrosities. All of my favorite shops are on the list (you can find out how yours rate at Responsible Shopper). The mistreatment of others for my convenience and pleasure has driven me to my knees for forgiveness and to action of some sort. Many months ago, I sent out an email to friends and family focusing on two places (Target and Gap stores, although it is important that I have not yet thought of a shop that doesn't have this problem). I wrote Gap a letter (I tried to write Target a letter, but they sent me in circles). Here is the response:

Dear Ms. Goodman,
Thank you for your inquiry about the treatment of workers and the factories that make our clothes. We share your concern, as this is alsoa very important matter to us. We want our products to be made in a safe and humane environment, and we've devoted significant amounts of time, money and energy toward improving factory conditions and the livesof garment workers. We're committed in our efforts. Nearly a decade ago, we created a Code of Vendor Conduct establishing our principles and the expectations we have for factories that produce our clothes. Today we have one of the most comprehensive factory monitoring programs in the apparel industry with more than 90 employees around the world who are devoted to improving the factories in which our products are made. We make both announced and surprise visits that include interviewing workers, reviewing documents, inspecting health, safety and labor conditions, andmore. In addition, we work closely with nonprofit and governmental organizations, independent monitors and community leaders, striving to promote change through greater collaboration among all concerned stakeholders.
We'd like to share more about our program with you, and we invite you tovisit our web site at: http://www.gapinc.com/public/SocialResponsibility/socialres.shtml
We've also recently published our first Social Responsibility Report which is available online as well. We want our customers, employees andinvestors to know what we're doing to improve factories, and your feedback about our efforts is greatly appreciated.
Customer Service Consultant

Because I am a cynic, I wonder how much is marketing and how much is real concern. (I could go into Starbucks regarding this, but I'll save that soapbox for another day.) But you have the information I do to do with it what you will.


Michelle Pendergrass said...


Is Starbucks bad? Please say no.

Heather said...

Starbucks isn't bad per se. It's just that they flaunt what they are doing to help coffee growers and water projects. When I've read reports about these projects, it amounts to very little. It's more corporation marketing.
I still drink their coffee. I just don't believe the hype.

Robin said...

Perhaps a marketing ploy, but I suppose lip service is a beginning (if that, in fact, is what it is). We can hope that they're true to their word.... And at least they responded to you (which in and of itself, is a bit of a surprise to me).

I didn't yet hit the link to stores that sell forced-labor goods (and the truth is...I don't wanna...in this case, ignorance is bliss :/).

Okay...sucking it up...headed there now.

Mirtika said...

My mom came as in immigrant in 1962, and she worked in the US version of a "sweat shop". It was nasty. The air was dirty. The bathrooms were third-world. Heating was inadequate in winter, and nothing but some flimsy fans in summer. Minimum wage, even with a union (ILGWU), which made me not very admiring of unions as a kid.

But mom didn't complain. It fed her kids and dressed them and it was a job a non-English speaker could do.

I wonder how many third world families think, "It's a good job," at what we look at and think, "What horrors?"

It's a matter of perspective. If the alternative is no job and starvation, perhaps what we view as a sweatshop is a lifesaver.

Dunno. It's a difficult subject for me personally, but I remember my mom and her gratitude for her work, and how she worked in better, cleaner, upgraded versions of that original sweatshop until she was 72, and happy for the work. It does make me stop and ponder if our complaining will not improve conditions so much as eradicate jobs from those who have it to take it to some cheaper country with fewer protections? I d unno. I dunno.


Mirtika said...

On a positive note: Ditch Starbucks for cheaper, homebrewed generic coffee. Now: Take the Starbucks money and buy sewing machines for third world mommies, so they can be their own independent business ladies.


That's better than a letter any day.


Heather said...

Thanks for the personal story and point of view.
Good idea for Starbucks and using the money for something else. I agree that they are overpriced. I'm lucky in that my friends know that I'm a coffee drinker, so I always have a stash from gifts - all sorts and brands of coffees.

sage said...

good for you for trying to raise awareness... at least the letter got someone attention.

As for coffee, there are number of "fair exchange" groups that import beans and supposedly pay a fair price to the farmer. Personnally, I've imported my own beans from the mountains of Honduras for the few years. I keep them in the freezer until ready to grind. I hope that by buying them in small towns, more of the proceeds get down to the people.

I suppose we have to do what we can do and always be willing to confess that we're part of systems that are not always pure or honest.

Erin said...

I have to admit, I feel like my hands are tied on this issue. How do I buck the system of big business in corporate America? How can I keep tabs on all their shady doings in the third world, their sleazy marketing tactics, and their price gouging? Is this what a capitalist society is really all about? I sure hope not.

Mirtika's story is an interesting addition to the discussion because I often wonder if Americans (as a nation) crusade for causes that no one else is really bothered by. Not that the causes are not valid and worthy, but one can catch a lot of flack for championing such a cause. I don't know what to do about that.

Obviously, we shouldn't stop protesting abortions and euthanasia just because the aborted and euthanized don't seem to be bothered by it or speak up against it. Obviously, they can't. And obviously, it's wrong.

I don't know where I'm going with this. Ruminating, I guess. Kudos to you, Heather, for getting off your duff to ask a few questions and try to hold someone responsibile. I'm still sitting on my duff.

As for Starbucks, it bothers me that they're usually the only game in town. I'd go to a locally run coffee shop in a heartbeat, just to "in your face" Starbucks. But there are so few. Cafe Brazil in Dallas became one of my faves. Now that I'm in Frederick, I've been pleased to find a handful of local java joints. My mission is to try them all. I'm such a martyr, huh?

Heather, I wanted to e-mail you, but don't see a link to your address.

Robin said...

Heather, can I get an email address, too? Thanks.

And wow, to Mirtika's perspective...!

Mirtika said...

::Mirtika's story is an interesting addition to the discussion because I often wonder if Americans (as a nation) crusade for causes that no one else is really bothered by.~~

Erin, I think the fact that we WANT for business to be responsible and not abuse people is good, and we shouldn't stop wanting that and doing our small part. But we should be very careful what fights we pick.

If we can buy fair market coffee, so that farmers get a living wage, that's a good thing. But if that fair market coffee tastes like crap (I tried only one brand, forgot the name, and had to throw it away it was so bad), it's not going to work. There has to be a realization that you have to woo the consumer's conscience AND meet a consumer's need. If the very yummiest coffee is fair market price, people will pay it. Period. We're suckers for yumminess. I'm happy to pay more for clothes made in the USA (cause I grew up with a seamstress mom who sang, "Look for the union label"). I like having Americans employed. But when I do that, I disemploy someone somewhere else. There's always a price to a choice.

If we boycott a country cause they have child labor, it's not just those children who lose jobs. And maybe those children were the only ones able to get jobs that kept their families alive. It's a horrible tihng to contemplate, but there it is.

So, I don't necessarily oppose child labor. It's easy to do that from the comfort of the fattest, richest nation on earth. I have to stop and ask, "Why is there child labor?" Is it cause they don't want to pay the wages to hire adults or is it because children work faster or is it slave labor or what? Because if you have a widow who is sick and her little girl or boy are the wage earners, I really don't want to say, "Sorry, your kid shouldn't work."

My mom and dad both worked as children. This is a reality of poor nations and the third world. She began selling candy at age 9. He began fishing for pay at 13. Neither got much of an education, obviously. I was the first to get a college degree in my family.

So, if we can help villages become self-sufficient, connect 1st world church to 3rd world church, connect 1st world family to 3rd world family and say, "I'll make sure you have what you need so your kid can go to school and not have to prostitute themselves," I think we'd make a lot more headway than just worrying if the shirt at Wal Mart was sewn by a child or by a woman making 2 bucks a day. Personal action and corporate accountability--I don't think the second can work effectively without the first. American companies will be responsible if they know Americans are connected t othose nations and towns where their factories reside. If my sponsored family is in that village, I have some pull when I write to the company:

Dear Global Multinational X, I am friends with the YZ family in the village of ABC, and I'm keeping an eye out on what you're doing there, because i will not let you abuse my extended family. The Church of LMNOP, which is sister church to mine in Main Ville, USA, will keep an eye on you, too. You are being watched. If you abuse your workers or pollute their soil, we'll be reporting it to the American newshounds. If you treat them fairly, we'll tout your product to all and sundry and bless your name.


Mrs. Mirtika

Don't you think that would work more effectively?


Heather said...

Wow, Mir. Those are some awesome thoughts and ideas.
I've loved the ideas of sister churches across the world for mutual learning and sharing and celebrating. This just adds another positive aspect to that.

Erin said...

I sure appreciate your thoughts and opinions on this subject. Is your letter to "Global Multinational X" available for public use? ;) I can tell you are speaking from a personal passion.
Do you know of an organization that partners 1st world churches with 3rd world ones? I'd love to pursue that idea more.

You wrote :Don't you think that would work more effectively?:

Um, yeah, seeing as my effectiveness is sitting on the aforementioned fattest, richest, Americanized hiney around. Oy!

I lived overseas for a few years, and often talked with nationals that really thought America meddled too much. Can't say if that's true or just propoganda. Being an American, I probably have a very skewed view anyhow. You are right though, we need to pick our battles. Lord, give us the discernment to know which ones to pick!

Mirtika said...

Erin, you need to talk to your pastor. At our previous church, we sponsored some missionaries, adn we were able to send supplies to the villages where the missionaries served, and some group from church would go once a year and help build, plant, paint, whatever, taking bags of supplies of whatever the missionaries said were needed.

Our current church has connections with a church pastor in South Africa.

If this is something you think your chuch can do, it's best to go to the head(s)--pastor and elders--and ask them if they know someone who is overseas and trustworthy (a pastor or missionary) who can connect them directly with a community. It's best, I think, to connect with a person actually LIVING there, who knows what people need most (livestock, building materials, a well, etc.)

Hubby and I have two sponsored kids in Africa. It's pretty cool when you can buy someone a goat (which doesn't cost that much in US dollars) and know the family can start breeding and having fresh milk and selling and earning. Ultimately, you don't want a village that's your charity case. You want them self-sufficient. You want to help them and let them do it their way, not OUR way. And when they're self-sufficient, you want to extricate the "American helping hand" and just be brothers and sisters in Christ they can write to and visit, but not see as a bank or a patron.

I know for a fact there are organizations that help villages become self-sufficient (World Vision does this) or target families to help them find a way to earn money.

Just do some research. Ask. Check Christianity Today monthly. (They often have articles on people doing this sort of thing).

At minimum, you can sponsor a third world child and talk to your pastor about sistering-up with a poor church.

If you're near a third world country--say you're in Texas or California or Florida--immigrant churches usually have trips to the third world to bring help to towns left behind, and they have ongoing connections to Mexico, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras, Dominican Republic, etc. The church in which I got saved many years ago had a connection to a particular town in Honduras. It was a tiny church, ours, but we sent a disproportionate amount of missionaries to live down there and work teaching literacy, providing medical aid, etc. It's easier once a church establishes that connection. Trust builds, you know?

If you walk into a humble Haitian American or Mexican community church or Vietnamese church or Ethiopian or Brazilian or whatever, and ask if they're connected with a particular village/church outreach overseas, no one's gonna bite your head off for wanting to help. :) You might make their day.