What’s Missing from John Oliver’s Garment Industry Argument

If I had a dollar for everyone who pointed me to John Oliver’s takedown of the global garment industry on Last Week Tonight, I would be able to buy-out the nearest H&M store of its cheap inventory.

I’m not complaining. I’m glad so many saw the piece and honored that they thought of me and my work.

But overall, I was disappointed with his argument. There wasn’t a single mention of the word “poverty” or of the lack of opportunities that exist in countries like Bangladesh.

Any story, segment, or piece on the global garment industry that doesn’t mention the word “poverty” is simply focusing on symptoms.

A factory accepting an underage worker is a symptom, but the fact underage worker has to have a job is the problem.

A factory collapsing is a symptom of an industry experiencing rapid unrestricted growth, but workers recognizing that the factory they work in and not having a voice to speak out is a problem.

John does make some really great points:

“Kathie Lee did not solve everything.”

Today, Kathie Lee, who became the face of sweatshops after it was discovered children were involved in producing her clothing line in the 90s, hosts the TODAY Show and marvels at the cheap fast fashions her guests feature. Yet the atrocities and labor wrongs of the industry have only grown in size and severity.

Regarding GAP John points out that: “A company trying as hard as it can has been not infrequently connected to labor violations in multiple countries over two decades.”

And his best point: “This is going to keep happening as long as we allow it.”

Because it has kept on happening and it will keep happening until we focus on the actual problems impacting the lives of garment workers.

I’d also like to see more focus on giving workers a voice like I mentioned in my last post.

Becky Vigus says:

I agree, the poverty and problem of children having to work is where the focus needs to start. I just don’t have the money necessary to make a difference. Nor do I have people willing to put money where there mouths are to fix it.

Keep saying what you have always said, “Look at the problem, not the symptom.”

Wendy Silvius says:

Kelsey, I have to respectfully, yet passionately disagree with you on this one. Exploitive labor practices are not just a symptom of poverty, but one of its primary causes. A look at the history of developed countries reveals that Americans and Europeans moved out of poverty when we started making value-added manufactured goods in companies owned by people who lived in our own communities, or at least our own country, not an ocean away. The wealth stayed local and recirculated. Since there wasn’t yet a globalized labor force unions were able to slowly but surely improve wages and working conditions (which you mentioned in WAIW) and take their share of the wealth; the American middle class was born. An honest look at the history of colonialism also makes it clear that Europeans and later Americans secured ownership of resources in much of the Global South that countries might have otherwise used to advance their own econonmic development. They enslaved people through plantation agriculture systems (that still exist today) and disrupted entire societies during the colonial era in order to profit. Today U.S. companies continue to engage in much of the same behavior in what has been termed neo-colonialism. All of the profits of U.S. clothing companies stay in the United States. The markets in the U.S. and Europe are already saturated with the goods being supplied by these exploiting companies, making it extremely difficult for poor countries that lack capital and infrastructure to do anything other than supply the cheap labor the industry wants. But some companies (far too few) go to great lengths to know their entire supply chain and to make sure everyone that takes part in their manufacturing is given opportunity to thrive and prosper through shared ownership, usually in the form of cooperatives. Those companies prove it can be done, and it is time to shame the rest into exporting opportunity abroad, not just hiding behind contracted suppliers and ducking responsibility. You know I’m a big fan of yours and I trust your heart in these matters, but since you have become influential through your writing I would love to see you take a stronger stance against the corporate behavior that keeps people enslaved in poverty. Giving workers cell phones is great, but I don’t buy for a minute that companies can’t know what is going on with their suppliers when and if they really want to.

Kelsey says:

Wendy, I am in no way defending the companies Oliver refers to in his segment. I abhor and rage against the symptoms as every bit as much as the problems I outlined. Poverty existed in Bangladesh before our underwear were made there. But now we exploit poverty with deadly consequences to unheard workers.

I just found Oliver’s argument to lack nuance and context. His take is a well-worn path that directs all the responsibility (and blame) to change the system largely on brands, but also on consumers and governments while giving little attention to the unheard voices of the workers and the realities they face. I think the reason cell phones offer some of the best hope for the industry is because unions have been demonized in our own culture and supporting unions abroad is out of fashion. Yes it is important to stand for workers rights and good factory conditions, but what’s even more important is supporting workers taking their own stand. The reason workers enter and work in a factory with cracks in the walls that they fear will collapse is because they can’t afford to lose a day’s worth of wages, or even worse, their job. Until workers are empowered to stand for themselves, no amount of brand-shaming, or T-shirt vending machines, or collapsed factories, or reports of child labor, or inspections, or ______, will lead to real and lasting change.

Now please don’t read this as “these poor folks need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and take a stand.” That’s not what I mean at all. Just as brands, consumers, governments, and factory owners are guilty in perpetuating this system, they are also responsible in helping empower the workers. How is that done? Maybe cell phones. Unions for sure. But also more nuanced reporting that incorporates the voices of the workers.

I’m sick of seeing reports that leave out the voices of the workers–the humans–most impacted by it.

I could go on forever. I could write a book on this! In fact, my views on all of the above and in this post are no different than the book I did write on this issue.

Wendy Silvius says:

Thanks for answering, Kelsey. I appreciate the way you always want to engage in a meaningful way, and that you keep the conversation evolving. I guess I just see the cell phone thing as another way for companies to pretend they just don’t know what is going on, and I don’t buy it. Even workers with a voice remain on the wrong side of the power relationship with the people who employ them, as you said. We are closer to the power here. We can get really close sometimes and my conviction is building, not diminishing, that we need to keep the pressure on and the message going in a similar way to the abolitionist movement in England in the 18th century, for example.

SolXMonard says:

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Let your voice be heard!