Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Irresistible Revolution, Part 2

We have to ask who the invisible people are. Who makes our clothes? Who picks our vegetables? And how are they treated? Growing up, I was told not to wear a t-shirt that advertised a band unless I agreed with what they stood for, but I was never told to do the same with companies I advertised inadvertently. What do they stand for? What gospel do they proclaim?
(Irresistible Revolution, 301)

The change of seasons brings about that incurable urge to shop for new clothes. Well, in most people it does. Personally, I usually despise clothes shopping (for myself), and only do it when I really need something. Even then, I wait.

I need a new pair of jeans. I only have two pairs. One pair fits like it was cut by a toddler, and the other pair I like but I'm not comfortable in them (they're a little too slim cut for my tastes). Since I can wear jeans to work, and because in a few weeks I'm going to have to put my beach-themed capris away until next spring, I need jeans.

But how do I buy clothes and become a better steward? Claiborne brings up a great point here about the invisible people of the world. We don't see how other people are treated in the fit or color of the clothes we buy, but our purchasing choices determine
which companies make money and reinforce how they treat their employees.

Sweatshops still exist all over the world. You've probably heard that Nike, Disney, and Gap (just to name a few) are some of the worst offenders for products made in sweatshops. But did you know sweatshops are in the US? Yeah, that's right, the good old "land of the free and the home of the brave". So even something that's made in America could be made in near-slavery conditions.

Shopping isn't simple, is it? While we want to cut down on what we buy, there are some things we simply have to have.

What about the people who harvest the vegetables and fruit we eat? Consider this article about Burger King:

Burger King Grants Raises to Pickers
Published: May 24, 2008

After a contentious battle that included allegations of spying, Burger King announced on Friday that it had reached an agreement to improve the wages and working conditions of tomato pickers in Florida.

At a news conference on Capitol Hill, the hamburger chain, based in Miami, said it would pay tomato prices adequate to give workers a wage increase of 1.5 cents a pound. A penny a pound will go into the workers’ pockets. The extra half-cent is intended to cover additional payroll taxes and administrative costs for tomato growers.

The 1-cent increase means that for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, the workers will earn 77 cents, instead of 45 cents. That is a 71 percent increase, the first substantial one in decades for the workers. At the old wage, a farm workers’ group said, the pickers typically earned $10,000 to $12,000 a year.

“If the Florida tomato industry is to be sustainable long term, it must become more socially responsible,” said Amy Wagner, a senior vice president at Burger King. She estimated that the wage boost would cost Burger King about $300,000 a year.

In a statement, Burger King’s chief executive, John W. Chidsey, said he was sorry for previous negative remarks directed toward an activist group that has fought on behalf of the pickers, the Coalition for Immokalee Workers. Immokalee is a town in southwest Florida where many of the farm workers live in decrepit shacks and trailers.

Mr. Chidsey praised the workers’ organization as “being on the forefront of efforts to improve farm labor conditions, exposing abuses and driving socially responsible purchasing and work practices in the Florida tomato fields.”

McDonalds and Yum Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, had already agreed to similar deals. But it remained unclear on Friday if workers would receive the pay increase, because Florida tomato growers had resisted it.

The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which represents 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers, told The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., on Thursday that it was withdrawing its threat of imposing $100,000 fines on members who provided a penny-a-pound pay raise.

Reggie Brown, the exchange’s executive vice president, told the Florida newspaper that he remained troubled by legal questions prompted by the raise and was advising members not to participate.

Mr. Brown could not be located for comment on Friday.

The announcement was hailed by some members of Congress and by farm workers’ organizations, who had waged a vigorous campaign that included petition drives and Congressional hearings.

Senator Bernard Sanders, an Independent of Vermont, said the working conditions of the tomato pickers were a “national and international embarrassment,” and he praised Burger King for agreeing to raise wages.

“We all know that this has been a long and hard road for Burger King,” he said.

Lucas Benitez, of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, said he was thankful that Burger King agreed to the wage increase, and he said his group would now set its sights on other restaurant chains and grocery retailers who continue to pay wages his group regards as substandard.

Noting that some of those companies market themselves as being socially responsible, Mr. Benitez, co-founder of the farm workers’ group, said, “It is time for those companies to live out the true meaning of their marketers’ words.

Friday’s announcement was a sharp departure for Burger King, which had vigorously fought increasing its tomato costs. Burger King acknowledged, for instance, that it had hired a private security firm to obtain information about student and farm worker organizations that were demanding price increases. The company has since severed its ties to the security firm.

I'm glad Burger King increased it wages to their workers, but what about other companies. Who do we support when we spend our money, and what does that say about what we believe?

In my Environmental Ethics class, we've been talking about Is vs. Ought. I am a staunch pessimist and talk a lot about what ought to be. The land of what is pisses me off, but we can't ignore it. I think stewardship encompasses a lot of this Is vs. Ought dilemma, in that in moving towards better stewardship, we move from what is to what ought to be - for example, moving from being huge consumers to being moderate consumers.

I stand for what ought to be - a world where people are treated like humans instead of 3/5 of a man. In order to encourage that change, I need to use my purchasing power to support those companies that already have that ethic.

What can you do? What do you stand for?

1 comment:

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

This was interesting. When I worked on a farm as a farm laborer I hated picking beans, and I wasn't very fond of picking melons or squash. Yet, the most physically demanding was probably picking tomatoes. It's no problem at all for the first ten or fifteen minutes, but after the first hour your legs get sore and your arms get tired. I'm glad people are getting a raise.

I don't understand a few things. First, the article mentioned a cost of $300,000 extra expenses to Burger King for paying 1.5 cents more for tomatoes so that tomato growers could pay pickers and packers more for their labor. Well, $300,000 doesn't seem like much to me. That is the wage of a couple executives at the head office, isn't it? And the end result is something like a 70% raise for people who make $12,000 per year? No, those figures can't be right. It's too good to be true. I think it must be a 7% raise for the pickers and packers. That is in itself a tremendous boon for them, and the cost seems pretty low. Gee, the good will they could get by publicizing their work to get better wages to the pickers and packers would be worth easily more than $300,000 in television advertising spots.

Who is this Reggie Brown character? How can an association threaten to fine growers who give workers wages? This doesn't sound like a free market system to me. The article said the growers association had dropped the threat of fining members who gave the 1 cent per pound raise, but wouldn't growers just leave the association?

Anyway, the general point your raising is important. I love to buy clothing from the people who made the clothing (at fairs, or perhaps through exchanges with pen-pals). I also love to buy used clothing at the Salvation Army or the Goodwill. It is just such an obviously good and easy thing to do. There is a far wider selection at the thrift shops anyway (at least in Springfield).

Another thing I don't understand is this: at a fair I might meet a guy who is selling shirts he made for $35 or $45 per shirt. The shirts are well-made, and I buy them and pay the guy. He must be making a decent living doing this, and he obviously enjoys his work. I've bought clothing from guys who tell me with pride about how they found some pattern or some design at a museum, and then they worked with their wives to get fabrics and buttons to match the museum artifact and then make it as a shirt people like me can buy for $45 or whatever. This seems cool. No one seems to have been exploited (well, I don't know who made the fabric). Now, if I go to a department store and try to buy a nice shirt I find that those shirts are also priced around $40 to $50, but when I look at the tags, I see they are made in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, or Mexico. I'd love to buy stuff from people in those countries and help some of the wealth flow out of the wealthy United States and into the pockets of laborers in the garment industry, but I have a strong suspicion that no much of the $40 or $50 I spend on that shirt would go to those workers. Much of it would go to the salesperson in the department store, and that's okay, as the salesperson (and the manager) are probably neighbors of mine in my community. But there bosses in the poor countries, and transport and shipping companies, and stockholders of the retail store where I buy it, and managers and executives who all need to take their cut, and so I think of the $40-$50 I spend on a shirt at a department store, really very little goes to the person who labors to make the shirt. I'd rather just go to a festival and buy directly from some guy who makes the shirts with his wife as their little out-of-home business. It seems a fairer exchange.

- Eric