Confessions of a sweatshop inspector

The Washington Monthly has a great piece by editor and former social compliance inspector, T.A. Frank, titled Confessions of a Sweatshop Inspector (first seen on CloneSix). Frank covers a lot of the issues surrounding international sourcing. Here’s a few excerpts:

On the job…

Unfortunately, we missed stuff. All inspections do. And sometimes it was embarrassing. At one follow-up inspection of a factory in Bangkok at which I’d noted some serious but common wage violations, the auditors who followed me found pregnant employees hiding on the roof and Burmese import workers earning criminally low wages. Whoops.

On ignorance is bliss sourcing…

Now, anyone in the business knows that when inspections uncover safety violations or wage underpayment more than once or twice—let alone five times—it’s a sign that bigger problems are lurking beneath. Companies rarely get bamboozled about this sort of thing unless they want to.

And many prefer to be bamboozled, because it’s cheaper.

On WalMart…

I noticed that Wal-Mart claimed to require factories to maintain decent labor standards—but why did it seem to think it could find them among the lowest bidders?

On being an engaged consumer…

Now, I know about good and bad actors mostly because I saw them directly. But ordinary consumers searching on company Web sites—,, etc.—can find out almost everything they need to know just sitting at their desks. For instance, just now I learned from Wal-Mart’s latest report on sourcing that only 26 percent of its audits are unannounced. By contrast, of the inspections Target conducts, 100 percent are unannounced. That’s a revealing difference. And companies that do what Nike does—prescreen, build long-term relationships, disclose producers—make a point of emphasizing that fact, and are relatively transparent. Companies that don’t are more guarded. (When in doubt, doubt.)

On child labor…

You may rightly hate the idea of child labor, but firing a fourteen-year-old in Indonesia from a factory job because she is fourteen does nothing but deprive her of income she is understandably desperate to keep. (She’ll find worse work elsewhere, most likely, or simply go hungry.)

On the Challenge…

But when a Chinese factory saves money by making its employees breathe hazardous fumes and, by doing so, closes down a U.S. factory that spends money on proper ventilation and masks, that’s wrong. It’s wrong by any measure. And that’s what we can do something about if we try. It’s the challenge we face as the walls come down, the dolls, pajamas, and televisions come in, and, increasingly, the future of our workers here is tied to that of workers who are oceans away.


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