The high price of a $5 T-shirt

The bombings in Boston and the fire and explosion in West, Texas, have filled us with sadness and indignation. We are angry that young men with hearts full of anger and hate could so callously kill and maim innocent people. We are outraged that because of greed and carelessness safety rules were ignored, inspections were not done at the Texas fertilizer plant and the result was an unnecessary nightmare.

The tragedy of these events is real. The pain and sadness caused are immeasurable. The human costs are hard to imagine.

Last week, an eight story garment factory near the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh collapsed killing more than 400 workers. The building had been evacuated earlier in the day as massive cracks appeared in the supporting pillars. Workers were told the cracks were nothing and were forced to go back into the building or face losing a month’s pay.  A short time later, the building crumbled to the ground.

In November more than 100 workers burned to death in another Bangladeshi garment factory. The doors were locked with padlocks preventing the workers’ escape.

The pain and sadness experienced by these hundreds of workers’ families and the injured survivors is no less than the that felt by American families in Boston and Texas.

In the debris of the November factory fire and in the rubble of this week’s collapse, reporters found the labels of major retailers from around the globe. Look at the tag in the T-shirt you are wearing. Where was it made? Bangladesh? China? Indonesia? Cambodia? Viet Nam? Haiti? One of the major retailers of garments made in the factory which burned in Bangladesh in November was none other than WalMart. Their web site lists the fire as an “opportunity” to make changes in their suppliers’ safety practices. The company, owned by the world’s wealthiest family, refused to pay any part of compensation to families of those who died in the fire.

Of course, Mr. Walton’s kids didn’t light the fire or lock the doors. They may have even have sent out a memo to their “supply chain” that such practices would not be tolerated.   While policies on sweatshops and treatment of labor make for good public relations, “Always, low prices,” is at least partly responsible.

I looked at WalMart’s web site and priced a couple of T-shirts. I found several in the same price range: two for $8.96. That makes one shirt about the same price as a cup of cappuccino. I have worked in retail sales for most of my adult life and understand the costs that must be considered in establishing the retail price of an item. Of course, WalMart must make money on the shirt or what would be the point of being in business. Since this company makes money on volume, they probably do not mark up the T-shirt 100 percent as a small company would have to do. Let’s say the WalMart markup is two dollars over the wholesale price. The $2 markup has to cover the cost of selling that shirt in their retail store or online. It includes the advertising, lights, shopping carts, shelf stocking, the cashier, the credit card charges if you pay for it with plastic, the bag, the greeter at the door and of course the profit to the WalMart family.

Since WalMart buys directly from the manufacturer, they have eliminated the need to pay a wholesale distributer any share of the remaining $2.48. Still this amount has to cover the plastic bag it is packaged in, the fabric, the thread, the dye, the pattern development, and the labels. It also must pay for the labor needed to cut and sew the T-shirt and the cost to ship it to WalMart. It is no wonder that the companies which sell to WalMart and their competitors seek to pay the lowest wages and overhead costs possible. They are not given much option when their share of the value chain is nickels and dimes per shirt.

I have been told that the workers in these plants are glad to have a job, any job.
That kind of rationalization may be partly right. These workers don’t have many options for employment. They may be desperate to have work. They work long hours in places we wouldn’t even visit. The minimum wage in Bangladesh is $40 a month. I doubt their work makes them happy. When the company employing them finds a place where people are even more desperate and will work for less, or environmental and labor laws are enforced even less rigorously, even these jobs will be gone.

So who really is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Bangladeshi mothers, daughters and wives in the rubble of their workplace? Is it companies like WalMart, the Gap and JC Penneys? Is it the factory owners? Is it governments that look the other way? Is it us, the American shopper who can’t pass up a good deal?

Will boycotting cheap T-shirts made in another country solve the problem? Will such acts reduce the amount of work the poor have available and make poverty worse? Can we really change how workers are treated on the other side of the globe? What if a $4.48 T-shirt is all I can afford?

Does it really make any difference?

Maybe not. But sometimes we just need to take a stand for someone else. Aren’t the lives of hundreds of workers in Bangladesh worth more than a cheap T-shirt?

Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains