Friends of MSF Essay Competition 2009-10 | Category 3: ‘Situations’ ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Highly Commended 2009-10 Sweatshops – The Elephant in the Newsroom John Rocke I watched the news the other day. I never usually watch the news, not because I don’t care what is going on in other parts of the world but because I’m a twenty-one year old male and all the news I need is on the BBC sport website. I find that if something notable happens outside of this niche it reaches me via the news outlet that the cavemen created - word of mouth. But it is the Christmas holiday, I am back home and I no longer have free reign over the remote control. The ITV news room has had a make-over since I last watched the news, but I can’t remember when that was. They have gone for a black, yellow and grey look. I have just googled it and apparently “after months of deliberation” the ITV executives felt a change was needed. This was due to the fact that the opening sequence was seen as too “London-centric” as Big Ben played a starting role and they didn’t want to alienate viewers from outside the London area1. Personally I struggle to recall the previous opening sequence. The first and headline story on the news was about shopping and the third story down was the war in Afghanistan with yet another soldier killed. I wonder if the executives had had lengthy deliberations over the order and importance of the news stories. Anyway back to the headline images show hordes of people racing into shops having queued for hours fresh from their turkey dinners. The reporter, who I am glad to see has not had a make-over in line with that of the rest of ITV news, does the vox pop interviews. The general public seem to be enjoying themselves and all are getting what they refer to as “bargains”. That may be true.
A few years ago now, when I was still at school and still towards the bottom of the remote control pecking order, I do remember a feature on sweatshops appearing on the news when there was less yellow and more of a damson colour scheme on the set. Images of workers chock-a-block, ensnared in the factory walls like flies to a spider’s web appeared in front of me. All faces possessed vacant expressions while working at full tilt sewing familiar garments that we have all seen hung under comforting lighting on the high streets. Subsequently there was an interview with one of the big wigs representing the company which was supplied by the pictured factory, the large man claimed that they were appalled by the whole thing and that there would be drastic changes implemented. They went back to the studio where the news reader didn’t look best pleased but let’s face it they never do until they start purposefully shuffling their papers when the credits roll. I’m not surprised to find that little progress has been made since that feature and there are still reports of poor working conditions and inexplicably low pay. The fashion industry is worth 36 billion pounds a year in the United Kingdom alone at present, instigating fierce competition among high street outlets to attract the masses through lowering prices2. Corners are cut and the factory workers in countries half way round the world are given paltry pay2. The simple truth is that somewhere somebody made the clothes and bags that those queues on the news crave. It is likely that this nameless person was working at a rate of around a mere two pounds per hour or less2. War on Want, a movement that campaigns for human rights, produced a report towards the end of 2006 focusing on the Bangladeshi garment industry in particular factories that supplied Tesco, Asda and Primark. They found that workers far exceeded the 48 hour working week plus 12 hours of voluntary overtime detailed in the common code of conduct that Tesco, Asda and Primark have all signed up to3. They spoke to one worker, called Rahimul, who had worked 140 hours of overtime in just one month3. Overtime is formally optional but it was discovered that if workers chose not to work overtime after being instructed to do so by management they instantly lost their jobs3. This overtime was often documented incorrectly by management to satisfy foreign buyers and local labour laws3. Working hours were not the only problem uncovered. The minimum wage is now £12 per month (around 6-7p per hour) in Bangladesh but War on Want found the starting wage in the factories they investigated range from £7.54 to £8.33 per month4. This is despite many experts indicating
that the living wage for Bangladesh should be in the region of at least £22 – a living wage is deemed to be enough for a worker to provide food, clean water, shelter, clothes, education, health care and transport for their family4. Consequently the workers were forced to live in crowded environments with no running water or sanitation. Any union activity by the workers to levy changes or expose working conditions resulted in instant dismissal4. Two years on from this first report War on Want produced a follow up report to assess if any changes had been made. Unfortunately nothing had changed. Illegal overtime was still enforced, wages were still not enough to live off, and physical assault by factory bosses was not uncommon if they felt targets were not being reached5. In the two years since the report the living wage had doubled due to increases in food prices5. The price of low quality rice had increased by 70% and other essential cooking items including oil, onions, pulses and flour saw and increase in price of between 30-60%5. Somewhat predictably no increase in wage had been given in line with the increased price of food5. Without the living wage workers are forced to live in cramped conditions with over ten family members sleeping in one room. Factories are highly unregulated and buildings unsafe, fires and deaths are unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence. In conditions which mirror Dickensian workhouse life it is not surprising that workers health is at best poor. Anton Foek, a free-lance journalist travelled to Thailand to investigate the production of Barbie dolls where he found workers suffering from musculoskeletal pains, nausea, hair loss, dizziness and memory loss6. Most commonly (over 75%) the workers complained of infection and breathing problems including chronic lead poisoning due to the thick mist of dusty air that enveloped them and the harmful chemicals with which they worked each day6. Protective masks are made available for purchase but the worker’s wages do not allow for such a luxury6. This report by Foek was published in 1997 around 7 years after the first large expose of sweatshop labour at the beginning of the 1990s. On Christmas eve in 2002, another 5 years on, the Independent newspaper reported that workers in China, where 1.5 million girls aged between 17 and 23 years of age supply 70% of the world’s toys, were being exploited “more than ever”7. Many workers were again found suffering from headaches and rashes from the spray paints, glue fumes and toxic dust that they were exposed to just like the workers in Bangkok7.
There are countless reports of sweatshop labour across the globe throughout the last two decades. People are suffering and progress is slow. There are a number of organisations, including War on Want, that are constantly campaigning to raise awareness and offer solutions to this humanitarian problem. No Sweat, Buy Nothing Day and Students Against Sweatshops are just some examples of organisations have had success in exposing and boycotting companies that use sweatshop labour in the manufacture of their products8. Labour behind the Label has proposed a four-pronged approach to tackling the elephant in the room2. The first requires a collaborative approach between companies within the Ethical Trading Initiative to identify problems in shared supply chains and enforce changes2. Secondly it is encouraged that the companies not just allow union activity but ensure that discussion about the work place and wages takes place between workers2. Thirdly they ask retailers to increase prices on the high street or cut profit margins to increase wages and they finally requested that companies should set targets to increase pay to that of a living wage2. None of those demands are drastic. Small changes are needed but these are large companies driven and blinded by profit. In Labour behind the Label’s latest survey only Monsoon, Gap, Next and New Look have committed to this approach with the goal of increasing wages, improving living conditions and the health of all workers2. This year FairTrade is celebrating its 15th anniversary, the company’s mark ensures shoppers that the product they buy has been ethically sourced and workers are paid a fair price. This certainly begs the question as to why I have seen no FairTrade marks on clothing on the high street or in fact why all products are not assessed as to their origin. A quick internet search reveals that there are clothes that carry the FairTrade mark but seem to be a rarity. Strategies such as these need to be expanded and backed by the shopper. Surveys on the high street have shown that consumers are willing to pay over 15% more on an item if they felt it had been produced under “good conditions”8. You and I, the consumer, could certainly play a major role in changing our attitudes as to how and where we shop causing a shift in product demand and concomitantly a change in the chief executive psyche. Again I have memories of the big-wig I saw on the news years ago. We have seen that although there has been some progress there is long way to go to eradicate sweatshops and the secondary health effects ensue. I do have some sympathy for the executives that are interviewed in the flashy news rooms. It is difficult to regulate working conditions in countries
half way round the world. One of the main barriers to solving the problem is the sub-contracting and sub-sub-contracting of work by the large western firms of the production of their goods. It is not necessarily their firm but their suppliers that are responsible. But with turnover and profit in the millions and even billions of British pounds surely anything is possible. One thing is for sure in the case of sweatshops, which can be deduced without a board meeting - a definite change in attitude is needed. As Bob Dylan so aptly put it “How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, The answer is blowing in the wind.” 1. English, P. (2009). Big Ben to be dropped from News at Ten titles over fears it's too "Londoncentric".
news/2009/2010/2023/big-ben-to-be-dropped-from-news-at-ten-titles-over-fears-it-s-too-londoncentric-86908-21767324/. 2. McMullen, A.M., S (2009). Let's Clean Up Fashion - The state of pay behind the UK high street (Labour Behind the Label). 3. Alam, K. (2006). Fashion Victims (War on Want). 4. Alam, K. (2008). Fashion Victims II (War on Want). 5. Foek, A. (1997). Sweatshop Barbie: exploitation of Third World labor. The Humanist 57, 9. 6. Becker, J. (2002). China's exploited toy workers still toil in toxic sweatshops. In The Independant. 7. Crewe, L. (2008). Counting the Cost of Fashion. Geography 93. 8. Pollin, R.B., J; Heintz, J (2002). Global Apparel Production and Sweatshop Labor: Can Raising Retail Prices Finance Living Wages. Cambridge Journal of Economics 28.
Friends of MSF Essay Competition 2009-10 | Category 3: ‘Situations’ Sweatshops - the elephant in the news room - John Rocke Highly Commended