Monday, September 23, 2013

Cultural relativism, globalization, and You

The Seattle Times this last Sunday morning published an article originally produced by a group called the Seattle Globalist.  The gist of the article is that they wanted to track down the actual person who could be said to have sewn a U. of Washington hoodie that sells in Seattle for a list price of $75.  To do this they traveled to Indonesia, and by using information provided on a public website by Nike, the maker, were able to narrow down the list of possible factories to 6, and then to the one where it was made.  They were presented with a worker from the factory floor who apparently recognized the hoodie and was able to talk about it.  They were not granted permission to visit the factory floor, or even to enter the factory.

The point of the article was not to find the worker, of course, but to highlight the differences in working conditions and lifestyles between Indonesian workers (in the case of this particular garment), and similar conditions in western nations in general and in Seattle in particular.   The interviewer asked questions about working conditions on the factory floor (which were not criticized by the worker), pay at the factory (which amounted to an equivalent $190 per month), and showed street life in Jakarta in passing camera shots and in an embedded video (see the link above).  The on-line article also showed a photo of a worker's rented room which was stark and poorly furnished by western standards. 

No attempt was made in the article to draw comparisons between the worker's life in the Nike factory and life of similarly aged girls outside the factory, or to present a recounting of pre-industrial life for girls in their early 20's in Jakarta.   The interviewer did not leave the city and look at life in the  more rural parts of the country.  The article did not go into the sufficiency of the income with respect to providing life necessaries, or whether the girl had options to choose other employment, etc.

The Seattle Globalist's objective is to make people aware of the "poor working conditions" in the factories in which garments are made outside of the USA, and to encourage consumers to boycott manufacturers that use these off-shore "sweatshops".  They do not engage in cultural studies of the countries themselves, do not embed themselves in the factories and learn the stories of the workers first-hand, and do not engage in longitudinal studies of the lives of the people who are born, live in, and make their lives in countries whose cultures are so different than those of us in the USA.  It serves their purposes to layer western values onto a country and culture that is so different from ours, and to draw conclusions about what these other people should feel and do with their lives based on the norms of our culture.  

As a frequent visitor to China, Indonesia, and Thailand, among many others, I have had the opportunity to spend time and observe life in the big cities, and in the country.  Indonesia is like many of countries in that part of the world.  Rural life is agricultural, city life is industrial.   People in the country travel to and live in the cities to find work, earn enough money to start a family or to support their relatives still in the country (presumably on the farm or in some other agriculturally-based activity), often sending money home to their families to support them in general, or to pay for the education of their brother back home.  Girls in particular travel to the cities as they are not seen as being as "valuable" as sons on the farm, and because their eventual marriage will take them away from their birth families and out of their families' lives.  They have an obligation to their parents until they get married, but after that they are gone.  This is especially true in China.  For an excellent reference on this topic, check out "Factory Girls" by Leslie Chang .  Or even the classic by Pearl Buck, "The Good Earth".

So what is the problem here?  Cultures develop at different rates.  Cultures have influences on them that are different than the one we have in the USA, and these influences my be secular, tribal, cultural, colonial, historical, and environmental.  Cross-cultural perspectives are normal, but it is not necessarily philosophically justifiable to judge a culture by one's own local moral or cultural standards.  If you are interested in seeing more about this topic, send me an email and I will forward you a file to read about it.