During the holiday season, the exchange of presents leaves the American consumer with a warm fuzzy feeling. Companies depend on the holiday season for a large chunk of their annual revenue. But do we ever stop and think about where these gifts are manufactured and how we manage to purchase them at such low prices? No, we don’t. And that’s how the system of exploitation of foreign workers continues. This holiday season, it can stop with your cooperation.
The imagery of Christmas elves described in popular books and movies is far from the truth. The workers constructing the toys that give children so much joy on Christmas are sometimes children themselves. Up to 80 percent of the world’s toys are made in China. For example, a factory in Shenzhen City, China employed nearly 100 16-year-old workers who are exposed to toxic chemicals, made to work up to 19-hour shifts and paid a mere 28 cents an hour. Though the Chinese government is partly to blame through its toleration of such deplorable labor practices, the American consumer is not exempt from fault.
The problem is not limited to toys, but includes the production of apparel and electronic appliances. I attempted to find a running shoe that wasn’t manufactured in a sweatshop. A sweatshop is defined as a factory that is characterized by one or more of the following conditions: long hours, low pay and unhealthy working conditions. To my dismay, ASICS sneakers, my preferred shoe brand, are made in Japanese sweatshops, though the brand is slightly ahead of Nike in implementation of fair labor practices. I consider myself an educated consumer, but for years I’d been contributing to a company that didn’t treat its workers as dignified human beings. Some proponents of the free market argue that sweatshops are a necessary part of the industrialization process and that these workers are thankful for the jobs, as it is preferable to unemployment. This is a false assumption. No one wants to be paid such a low wage that they must choose between eating and paying for medicine for their children.
Companies argue that the only way to keep prices low is through sweatshop labor. Instead of cutting costs with the wages of workers, companies could eliminate costs in many places along the supply chain. The CEO of Nike, Mike Parker, is the fourth highest-paid CEO in the United States, earning nearly $35 million in 2012. Perhaps instead of dodging questions about the unfair labor practices of his company, CEOs like Parker could raise wages and improve working conditions for their employees. Unfortunately, we cannot expect business executives to make changes based on their moral compasses because that is not the nature of a capitalist system. The consumers have to hit them where it hurts: the wallet.
In a country where people take sick pleasure in trampling 11-year-old girls during Black Friday, it is hard to extend empathy to workers who do not share a common language or culture, but it is something we must do. Instead of buying the cheapest product, pay the extra money and buy fair trade goods. All it takes to find fair trade products is a quick Google search. Though Christmas has become a largely secular holiday, I think both Christians and non-Christians could learn a thing or two from scripture during this holiday season.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” — Proverbs 31:8-9