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Reaping What You Sew: The Ethical Ramifications of Sweatshop Labor

When I was younger, I would sort my clothes by their tags. If it was produced in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, it was folded and stacked into a drawer I only pulled from on special occasions. There was a mystical luck I associated with clothes made in South Asia. Little did I know that the tags that made me proud of my heritage would soon dominate headlines. In 2013, a garment factory in Dhaka collapsed, killing over a thousand workers in the deadliest structural failure in modern history. A result of bureaucratic neglect and foreign corporate pressure, the fate of Bangladeshis sat amidst the confluence of a number of systemic failures. Gucci, Walmart, and other Western clothing brands packed hundreds of their laborers into just a couple of factory floors, and they now had blood on their hands.

So did I. The size 10 pair of Nike sneakers that I begged my parents to get me for Christmas was birthed from the hands of a laborer in India, but my Western oblivion had blinded me to the reality of outsourced manufacturing in South Asia. What sits at the heart of the modern apparel industry is the red hot shame of exploitation, especially of women and children. In almost every other aspect of our lives, we stress the process of how things are made. The food in our homes is cooked tenderly with love and detail. The rooms in which we live are brightened by heirlooms and their sentimentality. But, the clothes on our backs are sewn with hands, trembling at the prospect of injury, the reality of absolute poverty, and the future of bondage: the clothes on our backs are sewn with fear.

It is estimated that 80% of Bangladesh’s export revenue can be attributed to its garment industry. Despite this, the profits generated from the manufacture of apparel have lifted very few laborers out of poverty--if any at all. In looking at the salaries and conditions of garment workers, it is easy to see why. The majority of workers get about 3,000 taka a month, which is 2,000 taka short of what is recognized as a livable wage. To even earn that, many are bound to work 14 to 16-hour days in unregulated, unmonitored, and cramped buildings; the source of job-compromising injuries and life-threatening disasters. About 85% of these garment workers are women, and sexual harassment and discrimination runs rampant. Furthermore, employers often deny and disregard their right to maternity leave.

In the end, the weight of this systemic issue falls upon international law to regulate. To create the framework for more equitable transactions, international economic law needs to expand to include human rights, a concept it has often overlooked at the expense of laborers. With this expansion of legislation, its solidification into customary international law becomes necessary as current policy falls short of effectiveness because it lacks a binding instrument. Many multinational companies are headquartered in nations that consent to customary international law, so through the passage of stricter human rights legislation, we can hold these corporations accountable and motivate them to take on greater social responsibility to reform their supply chains. The road to the complete abolition of sweatshop labor is arduous and will require a great deal of time. In the meantime, as consumers, we can place greater emphasis on companies that pay their workers a living wage and respect their right to organize, thereby pressuring multinationals to change their exploitative practices.


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