Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sweat the shops

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The death of more than 300 workers in a Bangladesh garment factory is focusing attention on the appalling working conditions that millions of people in Third World countries face every day, particularly those who toil long hours for pennies a day to make products for western consumers.

The ethical questions raised in the disaster -- just the latest in a series -- are not new, but for the most part, they have been swept under the rug or made to go away with promises of tougher oversight and sanctions, none of which has happened.

The manufacture of toys, shoes and clothing has shifted dramatically over the last 40 years to the developing world, where low labour and overhead costs have helped keep prices down and profits up, but the trend has exacted a terrible human toll.

Some three million people work in the garment industry alone in Bangladesh, most of them in conditions that are only one step above slave labour.

They work long hours for pennies a day, without the right to form unions or refuse unsafe work. The owner of the garment factory had been told a day earlier to close it because of cracks in the walls, but the warning was ignored and the workers were ordered into the building.

Brand-name western companies were doing business with this factory and with thousands of others like it around the world. They've claimed they have "robust" standards to ensure safe work environments, as well as auditors to report on working conditions, but their protests of innocence seem disingenuous.

Several international bodies have routinely reported on the dangerous work conditions in garment factories, but to no avail. Major western companies have mostly averted their gaze from the gross violations of human rights that accompany the sweatshop assembly of their products.

The western world needs tougher laws and enforcement to ensure the goods we buy so cheaply are not produced in ways that violate the basic dignity that everyone, everywhere, is entitled to.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 A16

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