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Should Americans boycott sweatshops?

On 24 April 2013, an eight-story commercial building, Rana Plaza, collapsed in Savar, a sub-district in the Greater Dhaka Area, the capital of Bangladesh, aerial view (Credit: Jabar Al Nahian via Flickr)I write weekly for The Dallas Morning News as part of their Texas Faith blog.  Recently we addressed the Bangladesh factory tragedy by answering to the question, "Should Americans boycott sweatshops in places like Bangladesh?"  The "Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh" is one outcome of this horrific event, but the issue remains.  Here's my response:

Mahatma Gandhi believed that "poverty is the worst form of violence."  But there are many kinds of poverty.

I have met workers in Bangladesh whose conditions are so abysmal that they aspire to factory jobs.  I have talked with sweatshop workers in Cuba who consider themselves lucky to have escaped the subsistence farms of their parents.

If we boycott sweatshops, one of five results will occur (in ascending order of likelihood):

  1. Factory managers will improve conditions (assumes they have the margins to do so).
  2. Governments will raise standards and provide funds for implementation.
  3. Governments will raise standards but without funds, causing factories to harm or fire workers.
  4. Factories will cut costs through layoffs or decreased support for workers.
  5. The multi-national companies that own sweatshops will close them and divert manufacturing to nations that depend less on labor and more on technology, resulting in massive layoffs.

A better response is to support organizations that give workers better options.  I have seen micro-finance break poverty cycles in Bangladesh and church-based job training change lives in Cuba.

Aristotle warned that "the mother of revolution and crime is poverty."  The Bangladesh tragedy is a call to action, especially for Christians.  Scripture teaches that "the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy" (Psalm 140:12).  Christians are his body (1 Corinthians 12:27), called to incarnate his compassion.

It has been truly said, "I have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person."


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