Corban Addison is a law-trained author who uses his books to shine a light on human rights violations. He joins the show to talk about researching his latest novel, A Harvest of Thorns, about sweatshops and unfair labor practices.
Addison talks about the violations he found around the world, including here in America, and the brands he recommends for shoppers trying to make a positive impact with where they spend their dollars.
- Corban Addison, attorney, activist, and author of A Harvest of Thorns.
17-09 Sweatshops and Forced Labor
Marty Peterson: Where do you buy your clothes? Some people shop wherever they find the best deal. Some have certain brands they’re loyal to. And others don’t have a set pattern, but know their style when they see it. No matter how you shop, though, the sad fact is that an alarming amount of the items on store shelves and in all of our closets were made using unfair labor practices.
Corban Addison: So much of fashion and so much of clothing is made in subcontracting factories that are factories that the brand might not even know are involved in the process. So some of the subcontracting or subsidiary factories are adequately described by my victor, the guy who led me around in Malaysia, he called them “lean, mean, human abusing machines.”
Peterson: That’s Corban Addison, an attorney, activist, and author who uses his books to shine a light on human rights violations. His latest book, “A Harvest of Thorns” is focused on tackling forced labor in some mass manufacturing factories. He says for most people, this issue isn’t something they want to spend time thinking about. He can relate… but he says the only way to stop the abuse is for people to take notice.
Addison: I’m a consumer like you are, like we all are and until a couple of years ago I really didn’t think much at all about where stuff comes from. When I go into a store and buy things whether its clothes or otherwise I generally haven’t in the past thought about what the back-story was. I would just essentially participate in the consumer illusion, which is that these things show up in our stores and online in a pretty way. They are there for us to buy and to enjoy, but we never see the human hands that made them, we never see the factories, we never see the environment in which they are made. So a couple of years ago my wife actually suggested that I write a story about the under side of the consumer economy. She was learning this, starting to ask that question: where does stuff come from? She’d run across some stories suggesting it all wasn’t really right. In fact there was a tremendous amount of exploitation.
Peterson: In researching his book, Addison traveled the world visiting these factories and talking to forced laborers. One of his stops was in Malaysia…
Addison: Migrants come from outside of Malaysia to work in factories. The ones that I met came from Bangladesh, but they come from all over Southeast Asia… And they are basically sold a lie by unscrupulous labor brokers and they sign up with these incredibly onerous fees. And they get stuck in contracts they can’t get out of. And if they try to get out they get deported. So they end up working for a year or two or three for virtually no pay. The ones that I met were making for Adidas and Reebok and Mizuno and Polo, and that’s typical in a place like Malaysia. It’s typical in a place like Jordon where there are a lot of migrant laborers.
Peterson: In addition to general visits to these types of factories, Addison sought out the locations of specific sweatshop factory tragedies. For instance, he spent time in Bangladesh visiting victims of a 2012 sweatshop fire that killed over one hundred workers due to unsafe conditions.
Addison: I met with some of the women who jumped out of the Tazreen Fashions factory during the fire back in 2012. I sat with them and heard their stories. They really all should have died because they fell in many cases 50 or 60 feet to the ground, but they survived by bouncing off of bodies that were already on the ground or by falling through roofs, so they weren’t permanently disabled. They received very little compensation from the grants they were making for. When I read about that fire and heard about it I thought I’m going to start my story here. So I went undercover in a sense to get that information and to get those stories and meet those women.
Peterson: And though tragedies like a fire make some factories more infamous, Addison says there are sweatshops all over the world that play host to a whole variety of horrors.
Addison: They’re places where people work somewhere between 10 and 13 or 14 hours a day. There are places where overtime is very often unpaid, where in a place like Bangladesh you’re making something like 42 cents an hour, and sometimes the people in a place like that, the women of Tazreen actually had to protest, they had to actually have a march in order to get paid at all. Your sweatshop environment is the sort of place where women are very often berated verbally, sometimes physically by men, sometimes raped because they are vulnerable and their male managers take advantage of them. Women very often fear being terminated for pregnancy. There are no benefits like you think of, no maternity benefits. You get pregnant you’re out of a job. That basically beggars your family.
Peterson: When people hear talk of sweatshops and forced labor, they typically think of the countries already mentioned, like Malaysia or Bangladesh. But Addison says there is workers exploitation even here in America.
Addison: There are fast fashion brands that are making in factories that are often staffed by immigrants and sometimes even by people who have been trafficked up here from south of the border. These are brands that are regularly getting sued in the labor commissioner’s office in California under California law, which actually makes the brand guarantor of the unpaid wages of the worker. So the unfortunate thing is there are some really awful fast fashion factories in California. There are a few factories in New York, but for the most part if it’s made in the U.S.A. it’s in California and yet it’s the same all over the world. There are great factories in every country making clothes under the sun. And there are also awful factories and everything in between.
Peterson: So once we’re aware of the problem, how do we as consumers try to ensure we are buying ethically made products? Addison says it can get a little messy.
Addison: On a recent list published by Know the Chain, which is run by Humanity United, it has actually compiled information from some brands. It was intriguing to see Gap rating much higher than Prada, so it’s not just about how expensive something is. Something can be perfectly fine at a lower price point and something can be made with exploitation at a higher price point. So you can’t just say well, if I’m spending a lot of money on clothes then obviously it’s being made without exploitation.
Peterson: There is some good news, though. Addison says that as awareness of poor working conditions has risen, there has been a shift in how companies source their goods.
Addison: Those of us who were around and buying shoes in the 1990s remember the Nike scandals. What I will say as a hopeful sign is that Nike turned itself around and in twenty years became a leader in ethical sourcing. So it can happen, companies can change. The great challenge is the lack of transparency.
Peterson: It’s that lack of transparency that can become a real issue for consumers who desperately want to support fair labor practices…
Addison: The hardest challenge at this point is consumers just don’t know where to turn. There really is no list that I can point to, there’s no matrix that I can say, just go here and it’ll tell you all the bad guys and all the good guys, because the world is really, really complicated and the brands don’t know nearly enough about their own sourcing mechanisms and they very often are in the dark. Just to give you an example with the Tazreen fire in 2012 in Dacca, those women were there making a last minute order for Wal-Mart. When the New York Times asked Wal-Mart why it was sourcing from essentially a tinder box, a disaster waiting to happen, Wal-Mart disclaimed the factory and said we didn’t authorize our orders to go there. It went to a different supplier and it must have been subcontracted to this supplier, which is unfortunately the way a lot of this works. It’s many many layers, a lot of complexity. So the brands often don’t know, which leaves consumers even more in the dark.
Peterson: So what can consumers do to help end sweatshop labor? Addison says that there are many companies we can feel good supporting.
Addison: In my mind the gold standard of ethical sourcing is Patagonia. So if you can afford it shop there, the best quality on earth and they’ll even recycle your clothes for you if they get too old. So Patagonia is fabulous. Adidas is a very good sporting brand, even though I mentioned them before as being impacted by forced labor in Malaysia, they are actually doing a lot of work to try to eliminate that from their supply chain. A couple of big brands that are launching fair trade labels or have – Target I was surprised to find out, but Target is getting into the fair trade clothing market as is Gap. And then there are a lot of smaller brands, like Everlane for instance that are basically starting from the ground up, much like Patagonia did and trying to be ethical from the beginning.
Peterson: For even more guidance, Addison says most companies have information about their factories available online. If not, you can call and ask or search the Internet to find out more. Finally, Addison says it’s important to be aware of these issues and exercise some judgment when shopping.
Addison: The rule of thumb I mentioned before, and this is something I apply all the time, if it looks to good to be true it probably is. A dress shouldn’t be fifteen dollars, a t-shirt should not be four dollars, and a pair of jeans should not be fifteen dollars. I went into Costco the other day and I saw this jacket it was like a shell, and I knew that if I bought it from Columbia it’d be 60 bucks and if I bought it from Patagonia it’s probably be $150, but it was 20 bucks, you know, and I just looked at it and it was $19.99. Now I know Costco has got a lot of buying power and I do not know for sure anything about where this thing came from, but I’m going to apply this, “if it looks to good to be true it probably is” test and I’m not going to buy it, even though I could have saved money.
Peterson: Corban Addison’s book “A Harvest of Thorns” is available now. For more information on all of our guests, visit our site, viewpoints online dot net. You can find us on Twitter at viewpoints radio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook, our executive producer is Reed Pence, our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.