Recently, as Karen Coates discusses in her article “The Blood on Our Backs,” protests raged in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, over the low wages of garment workers. Protestors became violent, throwing “rocks, bricks, and Molotov cocktails.” Military police responded and escalated the violence with batons and bullets, leaving five dead and twenty wounded. In first-world countries like the United States, clothing companies have exported their production to developing countries like Cambodia, where labor is cheaper. The reason labor is so much cheaper is that the workers at the garment factories only make about eighty dollars a month and work in potentially dangerous conditions. Also, these workers are mostly women, who tend to be more docile. However, it is not just the workers that are in a bind. The factories receive tight deadlines from the retail stores to make the clothes at low costs. If these manufacturers do not agree to the steep demands, they will likely lose business. The big corporations making the demands do so because they need to keep their costs low and keep buyers happy. With western buyers, the simple fact is that they “want cheap clothes.” After considering the interests of everyone involved, there is no clear solution to the plight of garment workers in developing countries.
The network of interactions between the four parties is an example of the capitalist system. Laborers work for the manufacturers, working long hours in poor conditions for little pay to produce items of clothing. The manufacturers provide clothing products made by these workers to the corporations. The corporations contract out the manufacturing and essentially dictate the terms to the manufacturers or threaten to take their business elsewhere. Once the products are delivered, corporations provide them to the consumers. Consumers pay money for the goods to corporations, and their money eventually trickles all the way down the ladder to the workers. Both the money and the products pass through the hands of everyone involved, but some people benefit more than others.
Each group in these circumstances also has differing desires and goals. The workers want to make a livable wage, work reasonable hours, and have safe working conditions. In contrast, the main concern of both the manufacturers and the corporations is profits. As long as it makes them money, the manufacturers are willing to ignore the humanity of their employees. Western consumers have a sense of entitlement and expect to be provided with cheap goods. Actually, some poorer consumers depend on the availability of these low-cost clothes. With all these conflicts, it seems impossible to align all the groups’ interests.
So, then, how can this situation be remedied? One person alone would not be likely to have an effect on a problem of this magnitude. It would take a group of people committed to the plight of the garment workers. On the other hand, if no one takes any action, nothing will ever change. Before any change can occur in Cambodia or anywhere else with similar issues, western consumers need to be educated about the effects their low-price clothes have on other members of the global economy. It would also be helpful for workers in these countries to unionize, to band together to defend each other’s interests. Boycotting, in contrast, is not the answer because it hurts everyone involved if it drags on too long. With less business, corporations would be forced to reduce order sizes. Then, manufacturers would not make as much profit and would likely have to lower salaries or lay off their employees, the very workers the boycott was meant to help in the first place. Someone might also suggest that labor laws be instituted to protect the workers, like a minimum wage law. Unfortunately, however, these have already been shown not to work. Korn Phearum, a Phnom Penh resident, noted that when “the minimum wage rose $10 the previous year, her rent and food costs did the same,” a common phenomenon. No matter how well-intentioned and well-thought-out the laws might be, enacting any sort of laws will never solve the problem.
What this whole issue comes down to is that everyone involved is neglecting the golden rule: “Treat others the way you would want them to treat you.” With the workers, following the golden rule would mean not staging violent protests to get their way. In the case of the manufacturers, they would pay their workers a livable wage and keep working conditions safe. The corporations would be more flexible with deadlines and be willing to pay more for the clothing. For western consumers, the golden rule would translate into paying a higher price for clothes, understanding that their comparative riches are being spent to help the poor laborers. The question is, though, would it even be possible for all four parties to reach that point?
The hard truth about the golden rule is that just because one person treats another nicely does not mean that person will treat him well in return. Neither the government nor anyone else can force someone to change his mind on a subject, only criminalize his actions in hopes of changing his behavior. It takes a change of heart to truly change someone’s actions. This fact is made obvious through the example of racism in the United States. Even after the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed by law, whites still treated black people as lesser beings, second-class citizens. Whites engaged in this despicable treatment because, even though the law said that black people were just like everyone else, they refused to change their hearts and accept them as such. Since then, the U.S. has made marked progress in extinguishing racism, but even now, whites and blacks are not treated exactly equally. So, while the issue in Cambodia is not necessarily impossible to change, it will take something much greater than enacting new labor laws.
In the end, the states of affairs in Cambodia and places like it have no quick fix. The four invested parties have incompatible desires and are at a stalemate since no one is willing to compromise. Because it is easy to forget a problem that exists halfway across the globe, western consumers must be educated and constantly reminded of the predicament of the garment workers in these countries. Then, all people can do is pray that the hearts of the people involved will be changed. In order for any change to occur, everyone must treat one another like they would want to be treated, whether those actions are reciprocated or not. Ideally, the kind acts of a few will win over the majority, and no one will be exploited anymore. That principle does not just apply to Cambodian garment workers, either. As the saying goes, “charity begins at home.”
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