Students at our school are extremely active in their efforts to help developing. Clubs such as Students for Haiti Solidarity, Response to Haiti and One Dollar for Life are among a few of the numerous organizations that seek to raise awareness and donations for the citizens of impoverished countries.
However, despite these efforts to raise awareness, the other actions of our community unintentionally and indirectly contribute to the exploitation of the Haitian people. It all begins with the creation of a single T-shirt.
When clubs purchase their custom T-shirts, an influential factor in the purchasing process is price. Clubs browse for the cheapest option in custom apparel. It’s the logical choice.
The level of awareness that allows our community to be conscious of where our clothes are made is nonexistent. This inadvertently leads to purchases from companies that import T-shirts manufactured from corporations that take advantage of the poverty in developing nations. Ironically, the heart of many of these sweatshops lie in Haiti—the very nation that our school is dedicated to help.
The result of this lack of awareness is a vicious cycle in which our community’s efforts to support developing countries are countered by their sweatshop product purchases. While on one side, people attempt to raise money and donations to support Haitians, they unknowingly support the very entities that are destroying Haiti internally.
“I think we have a great dedicated community of administrators, teachers and students and I don’t think anybody is to blame here,” Students for Haiti Solidarity Adviser Seth Donnelly said. “It is more a matter of us collectively saying can we take the step that a lot of the other schools are taking and look for some more socially responsible business outlets and they [do] exist.”
According to the United States Government Accountability Office, a sweatshop is defined as an employing body that violates more than one federal or state labor law governing worker’s rights including minimum wage, overtime, child labor, occupational safety and health, worker’s compensation or industry regulation.
Factories in Haiti that manufacture textile goods for American corporations violate multiple parts of this definition.
“They want us to work like crazy the whole day,” a Haitian factory worker from the documentary, “Mickey Mouse Goes to Haiti” said. “If we go to the bathroom, they say it’s wasting time … It’s only when we are back at home we can wash up.”
Many of these factories manage to continue these malpractices because of the corrupt Haitian government. Politicians within the country serve as puppets who capitulate to American pressure.
According to documents disclosed by WikiLeaks, after American based textile companies protested to keep wages low, the Haitian government enforced a national minimum wage of only $3 a day. Because the government enforces these laws, there is no easy means of ending the perpetuation of these unjust practices. As a result, the Haitian workers are continually exploited.
There is no denying that this is a complex issue to which there is no immediate and obvious solution. Every option has its own consequences.
The most logical short term solution to address these problems seems to be simply stop buying products made in Haiti. But this would not work on a mass scale. The magnitude of completely shutting down production would cripple Haiti’s already feeble economy.
“In Haiti, 85 percent of the population is unemployed and subsisting on deep, deep poverty,” Donnelly said.
Due to Haiti’s high unemployment rates, the mere existence of these sweatshops provides some form of income, albeit atrociously low, to the population. Completely shutting down textile sweatshops would affect the Haitian population by stripping the people of even a modicum income in exchange for a boosted moral conscience in American consumers. This would cripple Haiti in the short run and pose even larger economic deficiencies in the long run.
Furthermore, if people boycott companies that outsource to Haiti, they run the risk of supporting sweatshops in other developing countries like China, Honduras or Burma. Our economies are globally linked so the solution is never that simple.
It seems that the best long term solution would be for companies to assume moral responsibility for their actions and stop manipulating sweatshops. But moral responsibility alone will not mitigate the social conditions of the country.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the minimum wage in Haiti is about 38 cents an hour. In comparison, the minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 an hour. Economically speaking, a corporation is more willing to outsource its textile production jobs to other nations to compensate for the 2000 percent difference in between Haitian and American wages.
The choice to outsource jobs is entrenched within the corrupt ideology of these corporations. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many successful American companies such as Berkeley-based Alliance Graphics and American Apparel are a testament to the possibility of a textile giant being ethical while maintaining a profit margin.
Instead of purchasing from major corporations, such as Gildan and Hanes, which have already been associated with underhanded dealings with sweatshops, students can consider alternative sources for their T-shirts when ordering.
Alliance Graphics, a local company in Berkeley, California, allows their workers to unionize—workers are allowed to organize together to negotiate wages and conditions. Unions protect against corporations that unfairly fire workers due to their demand for workers’ rights.
Granting their workers this right allows companies such as Alliance Graphics to ensure that their workers are not working in sweatshop conditions because the workers would have already protested against it. These corporations also only maintain domestic factories.
“[Alliance Graphics is] where the [Students for Haiti Solidarity Club] shirts were made,” Donnelly said. “It cost $4 or $5 dollars for us to have a shirt made.”
Purchasing from companies who practice similar policies to Alliance Graphics is one way to address this problem. While it may not be the perfect solution, it is the morally appealing one.
“…Then we can say our school business embodies our values,” Donnelly said. “We embody those values by virtue of where we buy things as well as what we do for clubs like ODFL, Students for Haiti Solidarity and ASB.”
However, this solution has its own drawbacks. By supporting domestic sweatshop free labor, we inevitably take jobs away from Haiti. In the short term, this might harm the Haitian people, but hopefully in the long run we can inspire reform and improve the working conditions for millions of people in the future.
While many resolutions lie in legislative policies that are difficult to change, students can make a conscious effort to mitigate or protest against these atrocities at a smaller scale.
The first step to change is raising awareness. Students must raise the level of consciousness and realize that the problems of third world countries are as close as the shirts on our backs. But our community must start taking responsibility and making conscious decisions.
From more active angle, students can support and join organizations that serve to find and confront corporations that violate workers rights.
“There’s been big movements on college campuses on this exact issue,” Donnelly said. “There’s a group called United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).”
USAS is one of many student-run or student-affiliated groups that protest against sweatshops. Since its creation, it has watched over companies by pressuring them to adequately address worker rights—with the goal of eradicating sweatshops completely.
There is no instant solution to aiding workers in sweatshops. It is a step-by-step process that requires the support of many consumers and activists. Ultimately, overthrowing the entrenchment of corporate greed is a difficult task. As a result, the most important step is to raise awareness regarding the issue and be conscious of the decisions we make.