Friday, December 9, 2011

The Price of Liberty -- Writer's Poke #347



My Levis never come from the same place. I have pairs from Nicaragua, Honduras, Haiti, and Lesotho. No matter where they’re made, I’m charged the same price at the retailer. So when I go to J.C. Penny’s, I expect to shell out about forty bucks for a pair of jeans.


Just how many pairs of Levis can an average work produce in an hour? I googled this question, but could not find a quick answer. For sake of argument, let’s assume the answer is 10 pairs. The retail value of 10 pairs of Levis, then, is $400. Wholesale value might be $200 for 10 pairs. Material costs might be $100 for 10 pairs. Shipping and other distribution and factory-related expenses might be, what, $50 for 10 pairs? After all this, what’s left over is profit and labor expenses. So how much does the average Haitian working for Levis make per hour? Maybe 30 cents, or 3 cents per completed pair of jeans. Is that fair?

Defenders of sweatshops suggest that they are simply part of the economic development process. If Haitians don’t have sweatshops, they won’t have jobs. Thus, if they have to work 12 hours shifts, 7 days a week, if they don’t have health care, if their government doesn’t have an organization that oversees worker safety, if children under 14 are working rather than going to school, etc., who cares? At least they have jobs.

Levis, like many other products, used to be made in the USA. However, American workers demand fair labor practices – things like a 40 hour work week, benefits, a minimum wage. Apparently, Americans also demand cheap goods. Perhaps a pair of U.S.-made Levis would need to sell, retail, for $150 rather than $40. But if Americans supported fair-labor practices for everyone, wouldn’t this be a small price to pay? If consumers were willing to pay more for U.S.-made goods, it would not only protect workers here at home, but perhaps it would also help workers currently slaving away in sweatshops, because honestly, a sweatshop worker is nothing more than a slave, and while no sane person defends slavery in the 21st century, apparently it’s still acceptable to defend sweatshops.

The argument that “sweatshops are better than the alternative” doesn’t hold water. If the alternatives to sweatshops stink, then address the alternatives. The right to basic human rights should not end at the U.S. border, and American consumers should be willing to pay the price to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live a better life. If the best the people of Haiti and elsewhere can do is 80 hour workweeks at 30 cents an hour, that’s not good enough, and we should not try to make ourselves feel better that we our the reasons that they have such “opportunities.”

Should U.S. consumers be willing to pay more for goods to protect workers, or is the bottom-line at checkout what we should be most concerned about?

“Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” – Patrick Henry

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