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Should I Boycott Clothing Made With Cheap Foreign Labor?

Workers take factory jobs in cities to improve their lives. It’s ethically better to support these workers than to boycott their products.

Q. My best friend says it’s unethical to buy super-cheap clothing at stores that source their garments from Bangladesh and other poor nations with very low wages and dangerous working conditions. I’m conflicted about this. Can you help me?

A. You’re grappling with a tough issue. Your friend is right to be concerned about worker safety in these places, especially after the fatal factory collapse and fire in Bangladesh last year. There’s no excuse for the local corruption, shoddy construction and production pressure that led to these tragedies and others. Fortunately for workers there, the big multinational clothing chains, under public pressure, are stepping up their monitoring of suppliers and putting heat on governments to clean up their acts.

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On the matter of worker pay, the appropriate comparison is not with Western wages, but with customary wages in these very poor nations. Young adults, especially women, flock from their rural homes to take factory jobs in cities because they can improve their lives by doing so. It’s ethically better to support these workers than to boycott their products. They are often fleeing starvation, forced marriages and teenage child-bearing in rural villages. The apparel industry offers them a cash wage, some independence in a patriarchal society, the chance to send money to family back home, and perhaps an opportunity for advancement. (For an astute exploration of this issue, see Two Sisters, a Small Room, and the World Behind a T-Shirt, with reader comments, at NPR.org.)

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Yes, the apparel industry—like virtually every other manufacturing sector—keeps moving to ever-lower-cost locales as wages rise. Sub-Saharan Africa may benefit if it inherits some clothing production from Asia, which will try to develop other kinds of production and/or raise its worker productivity to offset rising wages. Meanwhile, huge retailer H&M is pressuring Bangladesh and Cambodia to raise their minimum wages, and it is voluntarily raising pay in its suppliers’ factories. That’s all good.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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