Only 3 stances on garment dilemma?

I found this 2005 story on the Huffington Post during a recent Google session. Bob Burnett visited a factory that makes LEVI’S for the article and says there are only three ethical positions to take on the matter. The weird thing is that after I’ve committed over 4-months of my life to meeting garment workers and visiting their homes and factories, none of these “ethical positions” is my position.

What is my position?

I’m still thinking about that, but it’s not any one of them stated below. The dilemma isn’t that simple. If I was made the World Czar of Garment Ethics, I would encourage organizations to work with the factories to show them that, in a sense, a happy worker is a productive worker. If paying, training, and treating their workers better helps their bottom line, widespread changes may be possible. And that’s the thing, the changes must be widespread. If we focus on one country and improve conditions and pay, conditions and pay will only get better and more expensive, and eventually the industry will jump to where the conditions and pay are cheaper.

Here’s an excerpt from Burnett’s story:

Ultimately our purchase of foreign-made products is a moral question: do we take “fairness” seriously? There are three distinct ethical positions that Americans can take. The first is to view the issue as a consumer and to make purchasing decisions strictly on the basis of price and quality; to ignore concerns about who makes our clothes and what their living conditions are.

The second perspective is to see our decision as a reflection of American global economic policy and to demand that our government protect US workers as the first priority, to take care of our own citizens before we worry about workers in faraway countries, such as Cambodia. The problem with this position is that the Bush Administration has decided that American laborers are not as important as the earnings of their employers. George W. Bush and company are not going to worry about Cambodian workers, if they do not care about American employees; in fact, the Bush assault on the rights of our labor force has lowered the bar for workers around the world.

That leaves a final perspective, which steps outside consumerism and national concerns, and asks what our religious morality has to say about whether we should be concerned about the living conditions of the workers who make so many of the products we take for granted. As more than eighty percent of Americans identify as Christians, the applicable code of ethics comes from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, “Treat people in ways you want them to treat you.” Indeed, Jesus emphasized that the rich should care for the poor, “If you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.”

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Kent says:

I’m with you on the three stances Kels. Although, I believe that most people fall into the first position. Although, indifference can hardly be described as an “ethical positions.”

Kent says:

note to self: Don’t write an uneditable comment over a span of 2 hours while multitasking at work.

Kelsey says:

Kent, no editing required here. I misspell and misgrammar all the the time. Heck, misgrammar ain’t even a word.

I agree that most people fall in the first position, but it’s not really a position. If you don’t really know about something, how can you have position on it? I have no qualms with people that just go about buying and wearing their clothes without thinking “who made this?” As I don’t blame consumers for these dilemmas, I also don’t place all of the responsibility to right these dilemmas on them.

Rachael says:

I’d be interested to hear what other positions you think are possible (like your own – grin!)

I’be been thinking bucketloads about this – and loving your blog as a way to help me think too. I don’t want to be told *what* to think, but raising the questions is good.

Kelsey says:

Rachael, I’ve done my best to not take any position. I guess this could be called good, unbiased journalism, but really it’s just me being too dumb to figure out the complexities. Plus, I don’t like preaching. Although, I would be very interested to hear what others who have followed this quest think.

John says:

Why do so few see the other perspectives, beyond these three? Why do so many fall into the major error of linking the suffering to the factories? Perhaps a dysfunctional and corrupt government and lack of development due to isolation are the culprits here? The suffering and poverty in other countries are due to long term isolation, allowing conditions there to lag or not develop as other parts of the world, as well as corruption and incompetent government policies. The different wage levels in different countries will be leveled out by the migration of manufacturing jobs there. This tends to raise wage levels and reduce poverty. (don’t believe me? check the statistics yourself) What we are seeing now is a reduction of the isolation due to globalization. The migration of these jobs is actually a corrective reaction to the isolation and wage inequalities. As far as bad or brutal conditions, look at some of these societies – they are different and have many changes to make to develop into what we would call modern and humane. However, to see suffering and tragedy there, and then blame it on incoming manufacturing jobs is very naive, and a false conclusion. Be careful what actions you are tempted to take, as you may be harming those you wish to help. Investigate what would happen to those workers if they did not have these manufacturing jobs, which are often the highest paying available in the area, and much sought after.

Kelsey says:

Well put John.

I’m no expert on economics or social rights, but I think there is a lag between the industry moving to a country and the country seeing the benefits. Industry moves to use (or exploit depending on your perspective) cheap labor. At first it’s just a bonanza of people happy to have jobs and industries happy to pay them peanuts. The focus on what a livable wage is and the workers rights comes some time later. Economics moves much faster than social movements.

I’m not saying that these social movements are all good. They can kill an industry in a country and force jobs somewhere else, which is quite bad.

If the industry digs in and plants roots, I agree with you that some good will come. But if it’s a here today, somewhere cheaper tomorrow kind of industry, I’m not so sure.

I don’t think it’s fair to say that all industry is good. Just as it’s not fair to say all social movements for the workers good.

Thanks for the great comments.

Let your voice be heard!