Back in the ‘90s, there was a public outcry in America against cheap clothes produced in overseas sweatshops–often by children—but you don’t hear much about that anymore. Guess we must have solved the problem, huh? Actually, not so much. John Oliver devoted last night’s Last Week Tonight to explaining how things may have actually gotten worse.
So, what’s been going on with sweatshop garment labor since it was last a hot issue, back before 9/11? For one thing, the rise of fast fashion: trend cycles are faster than they’ve ever been. H&M has new stuff in its stores every two days. And garment-industry labor—98% of which is now outside the U.S.—has to keep up with our insatiable demand for cool and cheap shit to wear.
Also, the familiar offenders haven’t gone away. Oliver runs through a handful of times Gap Inc. has been caught using child labor in the past couple of decades and promised to fix its problems. Somehow, the situation did not improve.
Labor violations have also been discovered several times over the past decade at factories producing Walmart’s clothes. The company always uses the same excuse: those were unapproved factories that Walmart’s contractors subcontracted with, without Walmart’s knowledge. Seems like they should be auditing their supply chain a little more closely, huh?
It’s not just Walmart, either—the entire inspection system that’s meant to ensure decent working conditions abroad is severely busted, as the New York Times discovered in a 2013 investigation after the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 people.
The factory produced clothes for The Children’s Place, J.C. Penney, and Walmart, among others. Surviving victims and their families filed a class-action negligence suit just last week against those retailers and the Bangladeshi government.
Meanwhile, Oliver is doing his part by sending extremely cheap, extremely sketchy food of unknown providence to clothing company CEOs today. Just like their clothes, he doesn’t know where it came from, but he knows it was basically free.