Shirts Off Their Backs
You don't have to be Marx to see capitalism's contradictions surging from the surface of a shirt with "God Bless America" on the chest and "Made in Honduras" on the label. The contradictions only glared more garishly when President Bush urged us to express our patriotism—and celebrate "our way of life"—by going shopping. That relatively comfy way of life depends, of course, on the accessibility—the cheapness—of consumer goods. Even as the wages of the middle and working classes decline (while the wealthy rake in ever more riches), we still have to be able to afford fancy sneakers and trendy clothes, DVDs and MP3s, SUVs and the gas they guzzle.
About 85 percent of all clothes Americans buy are made overseas, a market valued at some $260 billion a year, according to the textile and garment workers union UNITE. The apparel industry, though hardly unique, offers the baldest example of how companies push consumer prices down—and profits up—by perpetually decreasing their most controllable cost of production: labor. According to a National Labor Committee investigation, labor costs can represent as little as two-tenths of one percent of the $14.89 price tag on a shirt made in El Salvador. That is, the worker gets three cents.
That's pretty much the case in the entire industry, anti-sweatshop advocates say, including in the U.S., where a mostly immigrant workforce slogs away in urban factories not much different from the ones back home. Garment shops that do uphold labor standards—like the Athletic Cap Company in Brooklyn—can't stay afloat unless they find a niche willing to pay for treating the workers like human beings. Co-owner Artie Farkas, who does a lot of business with unions, says a cap that costs him $2.50 to make costs 80 cents to make in China. Despite his intense post-9-11 emotions, he says, "I didn't even think about making caps with American flags. How could I compete?"
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