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The Decline, or the Acme, of Sweatshop Production?

Some very basic economic forces would seem to portend the decline of America’s sweatshop consumer economy. As wage stagnation has become so obvious that even the right-wing NewsMax has begun to feature complaints about it, the effect of unchanged real wages overall and diminishing real wages for middle class and working class Americans has been cloaked by the increasing availability of inexpensive goods including clothing. More and more cheap products made overseas have shored up Americans’ buying power. Sure, there was the considerable expense of sending products across the entire Pacific Ocean. But that expense was more than outweighed by the advantage of paying workers next to nothing, cutting corners on safety and health, and neglecting environmental protection. The deal made economic, if not moral, sense…

… until now. As the price of fuel rises sharply, the sweatshop model for producing consumer goods is becoming less and less profitable. Carting goods across an ocean costs more and more, making the economic gain of paying workers next to nothing, neglecting their well being and poisoning their environment just not enough. If nothing else changes, we will see that local goods made without sweatshop labor (like the t-shirts made, printed on and sold in the USA by Skreened) make more sense economically to consumers.

UPDATE, NOVEMBER 2015: As Skreened implodes, laying off employees in the United States, it is selling shirts that cannot be certified (except in the flawed corporate-front fairwashing “Fair Labor Association” sense) as sweatshop-free. To my regret, I cannot speak well of Skreened any longer.

The segment of the apparel industry that generates its profits off the desperation of abused workers in China, Vietnam and other low-income nations across the Pacific will have to make a choice if it wants to retain its market share. Sweatshop production may see a decline as more corporations decide it is worth it to make production local again, even if that means they have to pay American factory workers a living wage and obey those pesky environmental, health and safety regulations that have the side effect of lengthening our lives. A return to local production, while making good economic sense, would have the side benefit of energy efficiency and environmental protection.

A more disturbing possibility is that conditions in sweatshops will worsen as overseas producers cut wages, cut corners on worker safety, and more brazenly dump pollutants in efforts to make up for the increasing cost of energy.

Change of some sort is coming. Look for it.

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