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Bob Burnett

Bob Burnett

Posted: October 26, 2005 11:23 AM

Comfortably Numb


Phnom Penh – Our visit with the young women making Levi jeans in a Cambodian garment factory brought to mind the Pink Floyd lyric, “I have become comfortably numb.” While these workers are better off than most Cambodian women, their lives are mired in desperation. Meanwhile, global consumers remain comfortably numb.

The poorest country in South East Asia, Cambodia lacks natural resources and, as a result, has only two viable industries: tourism and garment manufacture. Phnom Penh garment factories employ about 250,000 workers, mostly females. We visited a huge facility – rented and operated by the Levi Strauss Company - in a gigantic industrial park. Supposedly the women have to be aged 18 or older to be employed, but many looked to be 13 or 14. The good news is that these garment workers earn a living wage of $45 per month, are paid overtime for extended hours, have a health clinic, and even belong to a company-recognized union.

The bad news is that the garment workers typically send $20 home each month and, therefore, live on less than one dollar per day - below the Cambodian poverty level. Within walking distance of the industrial park are a series of ramshackle wooden tenement buildings, divided into small rooms, not much bigger than a closet, each shared by two or three garment workers. There is no electricity or running water. The girls cook their food over a charcoal brazier in a small enclosure with a dirt floor. They bathe in another open area, using water from a cistern.

Despite these grim living conditions, the young leaders of the Garment Workers Union were upbeat about their prospects. Many of them escaped from an abusive relationship and see their long hours operating a sewing machine as an improvement. They cling to the possibility that their jobs will get better.

But is their hope justified? China hungers for the Cambodian garment-manufacturing business and seems prepared to devour it by promising corporations a cheaper work environment, one where workers have no benefits and Unions are forbidden. Within a few years, the situation in Cambodia may resemble that now found along the US-Mexico border where once flourishing plants are closed, because China underbid the contracts.

Experiencing the living conditions of the Cambodian garment workers helps Americans recognize that foreign laborers whose human rights are at risk manufacture most of the clothes we wear, and the consumer products we use. The decision we make when we buy a pair of jeans affects the lives of workers all over the world. If we refuse to buy clothes from nations, like China, who do not respect human rights, then we are affirming our belief in equity, decreasing the gap between the haves and have nots of the global community.

Ultimately our purchase of foreign-made products is a moral question: do we take “fairness” seriously? There are three distinct ethical positions that Americans can take. The first is to view the issue as a consumer and to make purchasing decisions strictly on the basis of price and quality; to ignore concerns about who makes our clothes and what their living conditions are.

The second perspective is to see our decision as a reflection of American global economic policy and to demand that our government protect US workers as the first priority, to take care of our own citizens before we worry about workers in faraway countries, such as Cambodia. The problem with this position is that the Bush Administration has decided that American laborers are not as important as the earnings of their employers. George W. Bush and company are not going to worry about Cambodian workers, if they do not care about American employees; in fact, the Bush assault on the rights of our labor force has lowered the bar for workers around the world.

That leaves a final perspective, which steps outside consumerism and national concerns, and asks what our religious morality has to say about whether we should be concerned about the living conditions of the workers who make so many of the products we take for granted. As more than eighty percent of Americans identify as Christians, the applicable code of ethics comes from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, “Treat people in ways you want them to treat you.” Indeed, Jesus emphasized that the rich should care for the poor, “If you wish to be perfect, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor.”

Nonetheless, some American Christians don’t acknowledge any responsibility for the less fortunate in society. In place of the maxim, “I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper,” they substitute the “sink or swim” morality. In conservative ideology, if you are well off, then you learned how to swim, good for you; if you are poor, you never learned how to swim, so you sink, too bad. This ethic argues that American consumers have no responsibility to help the less fortunate American working class, much less Cambodian garment workers.

The “sink or swim” attitude doesn’t reflect true Christian ethics. If we are going to live peacefully in this world, we must care for each other. We must take responsibility for the lives of the Cambodian garment workers and their counterparts around the world. To do otherwise is a symptom of moral numbness, a willingness to substitute comfort for compassion.