Think of the last pair of jeans you bought. In my case, they came from Gap.
Now try to picture, in your mind, the garment worker who made them.
Look at the tag, which indicates where they were made — probably, like most of our clothes, in a developing country. (Mine came from Bangladesh.)
After that, an online search may give you an idea of working conditions there.
For example, I found testimony from Morium Begum, who worked at a garment factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh, folding clothes and marking the places where buttons will be attached.
Earlier this year, Begum, 20, was pregnant with her first child, according to a recent Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights report.
Her supervisors at the factory — which primarily manufactures clothes for Gap and Old Navy — insisted that she maintain her usual work schedule, working over 100 hours per week.
On July 21, she worked till 10 p.m. The next day, she returned to the factory at the usual time, 7 a.m., but felt too sick to work. She gave birth two-and-a-half hours later. The baby did not survive.
While her doctor ordered a week of bed rest, Begum said she was told to return to work four days later.
“Management thinks we are machines — that we have no feelings, no sorrows, no hardships,” she said. “Our bosses are happy if we behave like machines and accept this as our universal fate.”
The report alleges that such treatment is routine at the factory, that employees are regularly subject to physical abuse and remain in abject poverty.
The issue of working conditions came to the forefront of international media earlier this year after an eight-story factory collapsed in Savar, Bangladesh, in April, killing 1,129 garment employees.
Most Westerners can’t imagine working in conditions like those described in the report.
But if we continue buying products — not just clothes, but electronics, toys, anything — made at factories where employees are mistreated or abused, we’re part of the problem.
A Gap spokeswoman, speaking to the Toronto Star in response to the institute’s report, said its claims did not align with a recent audit of the factory.
She said the company would review the allegations, which she said were “in direct violation of Gap’s contract with this vendor,” and take any necessary action.
Gap’s website includes a lengthy Social and Environmental Responsibility report, outlining its goals and the factors at play.
The company seems interested in fulfilling its responsibility to the people who manufacture its products. But Gap sources garments from 70 factories in Bangladesh alone.
With such a convoluted supply chain, it seems unlikely that Gap could monitor all its suppliers effectively.
So what’s a shopper to do?
We have our favourite brands, but we need to demand that companies hold up their end of the bargain — treating their workers properly, minimizing their environmental footprint and so on.
Fortunately, technology and the globalized economy have given us tools to take action.
Social media has made it easier than ever to connect with brands. Many companies now have Facebook pages where you can interact with them directly.
So ask hard questions. Hold Old Navy to account. Talk to Starbucks about fair trade. Ask Nintendo about its environmental footprint. The same questions from enough shoppers may convince companies to take action on hard issues — especially if there’s a chance it will affect their bottom line.
It’s not hard. Taking a stand takes just a few minutes of your time.
And when the well-being, health and even the lives of these workers are on the line, how can we do otherwise?
Follow Joel on Twitter @ JVDV88.