John Oliver Takes On Child Labor, The Gap And Walmart

As John Oliver noted on this Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight,” child labor and sweatshop labor in general used to be a huge deal. Kathie Lee Gifford got in a huge pile of trouble back in the ’90s when it was discovered that her clothing line was being manufactured by children in overseas sweatshops. These days, however–despite myriad horrifying factory fires at these shops–we kind of just overlook it. Why? Because we sure like buying dresses for $5.

One thing Oliver didn’t bring up that I think bears mentioning is that a great deal of our initial horror with sweatshops was also fueled by anger over American jobs moving overseas. I’m not saying we didn’t care about the children–I, for one, certainly did–but there was more widespread anger towards these practices here because not only were they abusing child labor, but also they were messing with the ability of many Americans to earn a living. It was two-fold.

Like so many other things, we’ve become inured to both of these things, and almost willing to accept them as “the way things are now.”

It used to be considered “UnAmerican” to buy things that hadn’t been made here, by our American workers. It is now considered “UnAmerican” to question the right of business owners to go overseas in order to manufacture these goods in the cheapest manner possible, even if that means using child labor. I’m going to say, I liked it the other way better.

Perhaps I’m just not with the times. Perhaps I’m still scarred from waking up so many mornings in the ’90s and seeing the headlines about the thousands of people being laid off from Kodak and Xerox–the two biggest companies in my city at the time–and thinking about what that meant for their families. Perhaps I’m annoyed at these companies getting tax breaks and corporate welfare while the people here, who could have those jobs, are stigmatized for taking welfare themselves. Perhaps kids dying in factory fires or being chained to work stations, or people working for 20 cents a day so I can buy a dress for $5 doesn’t seem like that great a deal to me in the long run.

Call me crazy, but I’d rather have fewer clothes that cost a little bit more then worry every time I go shopping that children were abused in the making of my perfect outfit. I’d be willing to pay more, as well, if they provided jobs for Americans who need them, and in factories that are safe. To me, the cheap prices aren’t worth the cost.