Sweatshops, Worker Cooperatives, and Capitalism

As just about everyone knows, most of our clothes are made by people – sometimes children – who work in deplorable conditions and receive little pay for their long, long hours of work. Sometimes, because of employers’ neglect of basic safety standards, which is caused by a host of things that we can just lump together and call “capitalism,” their fucking factories catch on fire and at least 112 of them die, as in the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, or their fucking factories collapse and at least 1,139 of them die, as in the 2013 Rana Plaza factory disaster. Both of these tragedies occurred in Bangladesh, which is the second largest exporter of apparel after China, and are only the most extreme examples of regular, preventable incidents.

I have long been troubled by sweatshop labor, and have tried to avoid buying clothes made that way or at least tried to avoid paying the murderers directly. So I’ll try to buy union-made clothes online (at such places as Justice Clothing), buy second-hand from thrift stores, or, in a pinch, go by the country of origin (making the perhaps questionable assumption that Western countries have better labor conditions). The vast majority of my wardrobe consists of clothes bought in these ways, mostly second-hand. The rest of it has been given to me.

I’m also interested in worker cooperatives, so I was excited when I was recently given a shirt made by a brand called No Chains, which is a collaborative effort by four worker cooperatives from Thailand, Argentina, Philippines, and Hong Kong. It was started in 2009, and although they are still in existence as evidenced by my getting a shirt that they recently made, their website in no way gives the impression that their future is secure. I’m hoping they get a foothold and are able to make a go of it. The shirt I was given was high quality and fit quite well, so I would be happy to buy lots more from them.

Now, with all that being said, I don’t pretend that my individual consumption habits matter much in the grand scheme of things. I don’t think we’re going to “ethically consume” our way out of this murderous system called capitalism. On the specific issue of worker cooperatives, I essentially agree with a professor named Phil Gasper, writing in the International Socialist Review last year:

“Economic democracy and workers’ self-management is absolutely central to any genuine socialist society, but they can only be permanently established by adopting a strategy aimed at dismantling the power of the capitalist state and expropriating the expropriators. In other words a political strategy, not one focused primarily on attempting to create alternative economic models within existing capitalist society.”

So long as we live in a market system – whether capitalist or any other modified form – the consumer’s desire to pay the least amount of money for anything (often due to ability) will always be a force working to undermine workers and any progress made through regulations, unionizing, or forming a worker cooperative.

But supporting worker cooperatives can be a small part in a much bigger strategy of fighting against capitalism. (Notice the word primarily in the quote above.) Insofar as we live in the world today and not an imaginary one, and one where we should be using all possible means to destroy capitalism, I will always try to support worker cooperatives whenever I can. Not only do worker co-ops enable workers to have the most control over their working lives, but we workers will need the practice and institutional memory of doing things ourselves once we are able to overthrow the bosses. If nothing else, buying from these worker cooperatives matters to these specific workers who are trying to escape the sweatshop industry, and the more people who support their efforts, the better off they will be and the more workers they can include. There are many other fronts in the fight to eliminate sweatshop labor – increasing safety standards through initiatives like the Bangladesh Accord, organizing unions, or building a revolutionary workers movement – but insofar as you, dear reader, are not in a situation to contribute to those things, and you find yourself in a world in which you have to wear clothes, you CAN buy them without supporting sweatshops. You can also donate to or otherwise support such groups as United Students Against SweatshopsClean Clothes Campaign, International Labor Rights Forum, or the Workers Rights Consortium.

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