Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pants beating

If, as seems likely (see post below), Americans are willing to tolerate just about any conceivable level of animal cruelty as long as it makes pork chops cheaper, let's consider another species: human beings.

I've had Charles Fishman's "The Wal-Mart Effect" around for a couple of years, and for some reason I never read quite all of it. Not sure why. It's an extremely well written and enlightening book, and it is by no means a screed against Wal-Mart. Even Wal-Mart apparently eventually realized that he was trying to be fair, since it finally gave in and allowed him to speak to some employees.

The random chapter I turned to last week had a section about a lawsuit filed by 15 workers in five countries who allege that Wal-Mart is guilty of sweatshop mismanagement. The suit proposes the novel legal theory that although Wal-Mart isn't based in those countries and doesn't own the factories involved, it in effect has control of the factories and is responsible for workplace abuses there.

Since Fishman's book was published, a U.S. court has dismissed the suit, finding, unsurprisingly, that it had no jurisdiction. But an appeal is planned and, according to Fishman, Wal-Mart has not disputed the underlying allegations.

One of those allegations is from a factory worker in Bangladesh, who was working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for 13 cents an hour sewing back pockets onto pants that eventually were sold in Wal-Mart stores. If she kept at the job for 50 years, Fishman calculated, she would still earn less in her career than Wal-Mart made in profits in every minute of 2004.

But here's the point: The 16-year-old worker claimed that workers were required to sew 120 pairs of pants an hour. If they made mistakes or fell behind, supervisors would beat them across the face with the pants they were working on.

If her account is true, Fishman says, "then it is possible that Wal-Mart's customers were buying pants off the display racks that might literally have been used to beat the people who made them. Who is wearing those pants now?"

Good question. Second question: Would Americans knowingly buy pants that were used to beat the workers who made them? My guess: Yes.

1 comment:

Mark T said...

The right would say that sweatshop work is but a stepping stone to a better life. The left would carry signs and protest. And nothing is ever done.