Something that Haunts Me: The High Cost of Low Prices

On April 24 a huge building collapsed near Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers. It was the deadliest disaster in the history of the global garment industry.

You probably saw the story. And you might be asking, “Why are you bringing up this piece of ‘old news?'” The reason is simple: I can’t get those garment workers out of my mind—even though it’s been almost eight weeks. Their story haunts me. And I’ve learned to pay attention to things that “haunt me.”

Many of the workers were young women from rural areas. They worked for minimum wages (about $37 a month) in this huge and unsafe building making clothes for people in the so-called “developed” countries—like me. This particular place made clothes for the Walt Disney Company (among others). In my mind I see rows and rows of women hunched over sewing machines making smiley Mickey Mouse shirts under awful conditions. It is precisely their low wages and dangerous working conditions that make it possible for me to enjoy inexpensive clothing—like T-shirts, underwear, slacks, sweaters, jackets, shoes. This situation appalls me.

Here’s a concrete example of what I’m talking about. The other day I bought a pair of sneakers. They were cheap ($14.95). At the check out, the shoes rang up for only $9.87. They were on sale. This means I got them for ten bucks! Later when I looked a

How much did my new sneakers really cost?

How much did my new sneakers really cost?

the shoes (which were made in China), I thought of those garment workers in Bangladesh. I found myself wondering, “How can this retailer afford to sell these shoes for only $10?” I knew the partial answer to that question: cheap labor. Then I asked, “Whose hands made these? And at what real cost—not to the manufacturer nor to me, but to the worker who made them?” I found myself thinking, “I would be willing to pay more for these shoes and more for other items if I knew that the extra money was going toward higher wages and safer working conditions.” (You might be thinking: “Easy for you to say. You’re a nun! You’re not raising a family.” And that’s true.) 

Added to this is the guilt I also feel for not buying things made in America. After all, I want to support the jobs of my fellow Americans. As I was folding my laundry recently, I checked out the labels. I found only a few items made in the USA. The others were made in China, Vietnam, Thailand, El Salvador, Guatemala, Singapore, Indonesia, Mexico, and yes, Bangladesh. I can’t help worrying about the working conditions under which these items were made.

So where am I going with all of this? For one thing, I feel compelled to educate myself concerning this issue of “the high cost of low prices.” I have checked out some of the websites of large retailers and read their ethical standards. Then I read some critiques of their standards and practices. As a consumer I do have some clout. I can pressure retailers in the USA to be more mindful of the working conditions of their partner manufacturers–whether in the US or outside of the US. Retailers can decide, for example, to do business only with manufacturers who sign on to the Better Work program. And I can decide to buy only from those who do.

I have also written several personal letters to some of the retailers I buy from expressing my horror over the Bangladesh catastrophe and my personal concern about the working conditions of the manufacturing companies they do business with.  I want them to know this issue is important to me. Writing a letter is a small act, I know, but at least it is an act.

I also continue to pray—sometimes in words like these:

Creator God, haunt me. Haunt me with the faces of those individuals who are suffering and are in desperate need. Let me never grow deaf to their anguished cries for help. Let me never get away with thinking, “It’s not my problem.” Or “The situation is too complex to do anything about it.” Or “Someone with knowledge and expertise should do something about that unjust situation.”  Instead haunt me. Haunt me with the truth that although I am only one person, I am still one person and I can do something. Haunt me with the reality that all of us on this beautiful planet are members of one human family. And what affects one person sooner or later affects all of us. Haunt me, God. Please haunt me.  Amen.   

Are there any situations or issues that haunt you?

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  1. Kathleen Magiera on June 10, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Sister Melannie,

    Thanks for the reminder of the Bangladesh factory workers. I did not realize the death toll was that high.

    It haunts me that the migrant workers who pick grapes near my village live in such fear of being deported. They work so hard yet are paid so little. Haunt is such a compelling word.


  2. Cindy Wesley, OFS on June 10, 2013 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for this reflection. I agree with you and I, too, would be willing to pay a little more if the workers received a higher wage. But I wonder if the higher price wouldn’t just go into the pockets of the companies and not mean a wage increase for the workers. Hard to know.

  3. Bridget Holy on June 10, 2013 at 9:30 am

    I VERY MUCH appreciate this weeks SunflowerSeeds. I would rather not have the items that come from places like this, but Sometimes we have no choice. This tragedy was so upsetting. I also think that we as consumers just want too many “Things”, which buying something inexpensive may satisfy us for the moment but in the long run it just could be our own fault, as so many of us (including ME) do this, afterthoughts. I will send this on to many people and post it on FaceBook.
    Thank you.

  4. Mary Schneider on June 10, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Sr Melannie:

    Haunted and guilty as charged. I admit to buying things that are less expensive, and I also notice most of them are made in so-called third-world countries. From today on, I will not make purchases which do not reflect the dignity of those who work for so little to provide for me who has so much! Thank you for once again reminding me of my obligation to love my neighbor and work to protect them.

    Mary S

  5. Pat Lynch on June 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Abortion haunts me….all I can think of is those poor tiny innocent babies being torn apart. Disney supports Planned parenthood, as do many top corporations. I will not support these corporations, even if it means going without. Our country and NY state seems bent on increasing abortions…all I can ask is, why????? I pray too!!! We have been blessed with so many things, we are becoming disposable….babies included. Lord have Mercy.

  6. Barbara d'Artois on June 10, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    A thought provoking commentary! I bought a jacket a couple of hours ago without even thinking about where it came from. Cost was the issue.
    I just checked the label: Made in China. Probably by someone living in squalid conditions and working long hours to barely eke out a living. Someone who certainly can’t think of buying a new jacket! Thank you for inspiring me to ponder how I can make a difference to my brothers and sisters in the Third World.

  7. Patti on June 11, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I too am concerned for those people who produce our clothing, electronics, etc. Thank you for the “haunting” prayer. It is moving me to do more than just buy less.

  8. metty thomas on June 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Dear Sr.Melanie,
    your article brought tears to my eyes. Was consoling to know that there are people who do think about these tragic events. and i too pray, God please haunt me till i do what I can.

  9. marian on June 12, 2013 at 7:30 am

    Greeting Sr. Melannie,
    I am from a big “blue collar” family where my parents did not look at where clothing was made, but which week they could afford to buy one of us a new pair of shoes or a dress. I discovered that there are the haves, the have nots, and those in between.

    Presently, I am thinking of a housekeeping staff member overworked, underpaid, with no benefits, for whom English was a second language. She had a 6 year old and had to fight deportation (separation from her US born children.) She was the main provider in her household. Her children attended our schools. Holiday gift cards did not change her situation.

    Our parish that is very active in praying for the disadvantaged, in calling on elected officials to lead reform, and in organizing opportunities to minister to others near and far away. This challenges me to move out of my comfort zone and seek God’s grace in all things, including service to others.


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