Social Justice

Dear America

Dear America,

It’s time we had a talk. There are lots of things that we could go in to, but we need to discuss your finances.

Overspending is an American pasttime. We justify it in the name of “capitalism” and our houses are crammed full of junk that we will never need. If our houses fill up, we rent storage units. We say, “Ah, if the demand is there, the free market provides it. It’s an agreement between the seller and the buyer. What’s wrong with that?” And, at the surface, there should be nothing wrong with that. We want a toothbrush and so we go off into the free market searching for a toothbrush that meets our needs at a price that satisfies us and the seller.

Well, unfortunately, America, that is not how it works in real-life. People are selfish and greedy and take advantage of other people if it means they can get ahead. What this means, in this great big world of globalization, is that your fixation with getting things at “low” prices has resulted in the exploitation of people making these cheap goods. I read a book about trafficking and the author recounted a story about two women in India who (somehow) were able to publiscize that their toothbrush factory wasn’t paying them enough so that they could even buy a toothbrush for themselves, much less support their families. These toothbrushes, which were sold in American Wal-Marts, were so “cheap” that the workers making them couldn’t be paid fairly. The inherent question in the story was, “Do I need a CHEAP toothbrush so badly that the people making it can’t make a living wage?” Let me spare you the ethical dilemna, America- no, you do not need that toothbrush for only a dollar. You could certainly afford to pay an extra dollar so that the workers get a fair wage- you just don’t want to.

Now, I’ve heard that sweatshops in other countries sometimes provide one of the only ways for women to make money. The argument is that if they didn’t have that sweatshop job, they would be in the sex industry. I don’t buy it. Would those options be good enough for your daughter? “Okay, kid. You can work here, under terrible conditions and for little-to-no pay, but at least you aren’t forced to be a prostitute to support yourself.”  I’m not satisfied with those options, especially when they’re manufacturing things that we could easily afford to spend a little extra money on (which is everything).

It’s not good enough, America. Our brothers and sisters across the world are paying for our excess through their hard labor and small wages. Our thirst for clothes and dishes and pens and toothpicks and belts that are “SO CHEAP” is hurting people, actual people that have children and hopes and dreams. Globalization has allowed more competition in the market place, yes, but it has also opened up a huge can of worms- one that allows people to easily take advantage of other people so that other people can have cheap toothbrushes. It has made it more difficult to purchase things and know where they come from. Who made this? Are they being treated fairly? Was it children?

You might say, “Well, if they hate it so much, why don’t they just get a different job?” If you have to ask this question, you obviously don’t understand how the world works for those living in poverty (even here in America). If you are poor, uneducated, untrained, don’t know the language or your rights, or illegal, then your job choices are extremely limited. So limited, in fact, that many people feel trapped by their job because they know it’s the only thing they could get. Employers know this and use it to exploit their employees. In my mind, there is a fine line between using your employees because you know they have nowhere else to go and enslaving them. In many places in the world, this is exactly what happens- SLAVES are making your Wal-Mart shorts. They get no pay and there is no hope of ever leaving.

This happens in America too. I know you’ve heard of sweatshops in the garment districts of LA and New York. You might not have heard of “migrant visas”, which allow hispanic workers to come into the US and work on farms. The catch is that they can ONLY work on the farm that sponsored their visa, which basically allows the farmer to treat the workers however he wants, without fear of repurcussion from the government or his workers, who have no rights. Mosaic Family Services in Dallas helps rescue and shelter people who have been trafficked into the US. Alot of the trafficking publicity focuses on sex-trafficking, which I have no problems with, but about 80 percent of the cases that Mosaic deals with are labor trafficking cases, where people have been shipped in for work. It’s happening. Businesses have heard your cry for cheap lunchboxes and tennis shoes, so they are exploiting people to deliver the goods.

I don’t shop at Wal-Mart anymore because I’ve done enough research to convince me that they don’t care about people. They say that they do factory inspections to make sure the workers are being treated fairly, but the inspections are announced, so they rarely find infractions of their generous worker protection policy (and, let’s be honest, they don’t even really treat their employees in the States well, so why would they care about a woman in China?) If you would like to read more, The Wal-Mart Effect is an excellent read. The author is as un-biased as he can be and tries to present the facts.

So, what can you do? How can you spend your money more responsibly? Expect to spend more money. Stop fixating on getting things at the lowest price. Think about the ethical, environmental, and human cost of buying the cheapest toothbrush or the cheapest shrimp.   Buying things that were made in America is a safe(r) bet because we try to have some semblance of labor protection (although it by no means protects everyone). Not buying things that you don’t need is the safest bet. You can’t encourage businesses to exploit anyone if you aren’t buying their goods. Buy fair-trade when you can. It’s easy to find fair-trade chocolate and coffee. Whole Foods and Sprouts endeavor to buy alot of their other foods from fair-trade places. Buy local. Research your clothing companies before you buy there. I know it’s painful. Cute clothes at a great price are tempting but you just have to remember the cost. Educate yourself. Read books. Watch documentaries. Become an informed consumer and let the companies know that YOU care about our global brothers and sisters by speaking with your dollars.

Dear, America, I know you can do this. It’s time for you to stop feeling entitled in your shopping and start feeling empowered to make decisions that are responsible and just.

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