The date: April 24, 2013. The scene: Savar, a bustling sub-district located just outside Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Still in the early hours of a humid summer morning, thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers made their way to their stations at Rana Plaza, an eight-story commercial building in the downtown area, where local workers gathered each day to make clothes for Western buyers. At 8:57 am, the morning rush hour still buzzing outside, Rana Plaza suddenly collapsed upon itself, reducing all but the ground floor to rubble, trapping over 3,600 people inside the wreckage.
More than 1,100 people, a vast majority of them being female garment workers, were killed that day, and an additional 2,500 were injured, in what is now ranked one of the deadliest accidental structural failures in modern history. Later reports revealed the gravity of the conditions inside the factory; emergency exits were blocked by boxes, the structure itself was unstable at best, and short-term production orders had led managers to cut corners, which would prove to be deadly, in the end.
Nearly two years after the Rana Plaza disaster, however, garment factories across the world have done little to improve the working conditions for those employees who continue to labor under conditions for pay that does little more than allow them to buy food.
Not to change the subject, but here’s a fact: school uniforms are overwhelmingly popular in Catholic schools. McNick is obviously no exception. Have you ever wondered what hands made that polo you’re wearing? Or who helped cut the fabric in your favorite uniform pullover? The answer’s not too difficult to find – all you have to do is check the tags.
Hunter Green Polo – Made in China
Black Quarter-zip Fleece – Made in Vietnam
Black Quarter-zip Pullover – Made in China
Class of 2015 Senior Hoodie – Made in Honduras
Green McNick Pullover – Made in Honduras
A majority of the items offered as a part of McNick’s dress code are made by Port Authority, a clothing company that manufactures items typically worn in a corporate or casual setting, providing uniforms to schools and companies around the world. According to the supply chain disclosure policy on the company’s website, Port Authority is committed to “seek to operate in compliance with the highest standard and all applicable national laws… and to respect and support international principles aimed at preventing and eradicating trafficking and slavery.”
Here’s the thing – Port Authority is not an autonomous corporation. The company is actually owned by SanMar, a larger corporate entity that controls a number of private label brands, including Sport Tek (which supplies a number of McNick activewear items) and popular outerwear retailer Eddie Bauer. SanMar is a member of the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an international auditing group that makes unannounced visits to factories across the world, where they conduct reports assessing factors from wages to factory conditions.
Though the very action of having documents such as these available is a rare occasion in the often-secretive garment industry, the reports themselves raise numerous red flags when it comes to safety and humane treatment of workers. Just because a company chooses to be transparent about their sources, doesn’t mean those sources are justifiable.
As it turns out, SanMar also oversees production for the popular golf division of Nike, the brand whose treatment of factory workers has been pretty difficult to ignore. Just recently, on March 10, the International Business Times reported on an incident in which 5,000 workers making shoes for Nike and Timberland clashed with police during a strike outside the Stella Shoe Co. factory in Dongguan, an industrial city in southern China.
In one of SanMar’s factories in Vietnam, the FLA reported a string of noncompliance issues effecting the 3,400 employees, including aisles between working stations even more narrow than the 0.6 meter standard, pathways and crucial exits in the building blocked off, first aid kits locked away from workers’ use, no set chemical regulations (despite reports of employees bringing in outside chemicals without approval from management), proper ventilation that was non-existent, locked bathrooms, employees who were forced to work through holidays with pay that was insufficient to the required amount, and contracts that had not been updated as required by Vietnam labor laws.
On top of all of these issues, which are overwhelmingly prevalent in garment factories worldwide, one of the most pressing facts of the modern-day cause for worker rights is this: employees in factories are rarely, if ever, allowed access to a living wage, which is commonly defined as an income that “enables workers to meet their needs for nutritious food and clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care, and transport, as well as allowing for discretionary income.”
Perhaps clothing manufacturers need to spend less time on marketing and more time looking to the example of companies like American Apparel, the LA-based retailer that has found success in raising the minimum wage for factory workers, providing on-site benefits such as health care, bus passes, paid vacation, and free classes for those who wish to learn English as a second language.
Here’s the other thing: McNick is a Catholic school. Hasn’t the Church made its position on sweatshops quite clear? Catholic Social Teaching proclaims that all workers should have the right to use their creative talents in their work, earning a livable wage, spending reasonable hours in a safe workplace, and working with the innate human dignity that is the very soul of the workers’ rights movement.
In his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens (“On Human Work”), Pope John Paul II wrote on the subject of the exploitation of workers, saying: “There is a need for ever new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers… The Church is firmly committed to this cause, for she considers it her mission, her service, a proof of her fidelity to Christ, so that she can truly be the ‘Church of the poor.’”
Even Pope Francis spoke out about the issue following the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, condemning the existence of sweatshop labor, and criticizing a society that values product and profit over the sanctity of human life.
“This is a burden on our conscience, because when society is organized in such a way that not everyone has the opportunity to work, to be anointed with the dignity of work, then there is something wrong with that society,” Pope Francis said, appalled at the meager $50 per month salary of the Bangladeshi workers. “This is called slave labor.”
So what’s the solution? It would be a mighty endeavor to take on the multi-billion dollar garment industry. There are, however, other options for schools to take in order to combat sweatshop labor. Take it from United Students Against Sweatshops, an American organization that brings together students from over 150 different schools, fighting for worker’s rights and advocating for solidarity with garment workers in factories throughout the world.
We’re going to have to start small – even if that means simply looking for ways to offer ethically-sourced polos to the student body of McNick. There are options, however, such as Fair Trade Uniforms, a company that offers quality polo shirts that help to advance economic development, women’s rights, and fair labor practices throughout the world, working directly with women in Thailand and Mexico to build better lives for disadvantaged families. Instead of using workers simply as a means by which to produce product, companies such as this view them as a people, with families to support, lives to lead, and dreams that may go beyond the walls of the factory. The products they produce don’t just benefit the buyers – they benefit the good of global society.
As a Catholic school, and as an institution that believes in supporting the rights of people throughout the world, we cannot go on condoning an industry that continues to violate the inherent dignity of human beings. We cannot move forward knowing that the hands who have made our clothes are toiling in dangerous factories for payment that allows them to do little more than simply exist. This is an issue that can no longer be ignored – the plight of the worker must become our plight as well.