Revulsion at the way multinationals use cheap labour reached a new height in the wake of the factory collapse in Bangladesh last month.
Over 1,000 workers were killed after being forced back into a building they knew was unsafe.
Some activists in the West called for a boycott of firms such as Primark and Benetton. These are among the many that outsourced production to the now ruined factories.
They want clothing giants to guarantee that their products were produced under decent conditions.
Others, including many trade unions, say that new trade agreements should insist upon minimum standards before allowing clothes to be imported.
Socialists are on the side of all those who want to improve workers’ lives.
Karl Marx pointed out that terrible working conditions were not an aberration but something that was built into the system.
He argued that capitalism vastly increased the wealth that humans could produce, yet denied most of them the benefits of this wealth.
“The more the worker produces, the less he has to consume,” Marx wrote.
“The more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes ... [The system] replaces labour by machines, but it throws one section of workers back to a barbarous type of labour, and it turns the other section into a machine ... It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich—but for the worker it produces privation. It produces palaces—but for the worker, hovels.”
Competition between bosses was at the root of the problem, Marx said. This leads each to try to expand more rapidly than their rivals. They can only do so by continually driving workers ever harder to maximise profits.
Individual capitalists are driven to continue this process if they are to remain in business.
If they do not make profits comparable to those of their rivals they will be driven out of business or bought up by their competitors.
Every clothing firm knows that other firms are scouring the world looking for ways to buy more cheaply.
Manufacturing clothes, unlike most other products, can be relocated because of the low level of technology and relatively unskilled labour used.
So boycotting a particular firm will not stop the sweatshops, but instead it will boost its competitors.
Likewise, using trade restrictions to punish Bangladesh for its low labour standards can only benefit rival capitalists in equally poor Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
The only way to drive out terrible conditions is for workers to organise themselves, as those who have taken to the streets of Dhaka have done.
Workers’ action there often spreads quickly from one factory to another. It can force bosses in the sector as a whole to make concessions.
Even multinational clothing bosses are reluctant to move production to another country, in the short term at least, if they can avoid doing so.
But in the longer term clothing bosses faced with rising costs will look elsewhere. That’s why we have to make the struggle international—and against the system as a whole.
Only then we can end the misery of sweatshops that have been a feature of capitalism since its birth.