Is it possible to be a Consumer without Contributing to Poverty in the Developing World?

Well the short answer is, it’s complicated. The problem is knowing whether the things we like to buy, be it a tomato or a ball gown, have at some stage in their production been manufactured by people who are being exploited for cheap labour. The supply chains of retailers that provide us with the things we like to buy here in the UK are vast and cover the globe. There is a particular problem within the clothing industry for outsourcing the manufacture of garments to developing countries. An obvious reason for this is its cheap; much cheaper than producing them here. For consumers and retailers this is fantastic, it means bigger profits for the latter and cheap clothes for the former.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that all too often this means the people making the clothes receive wages that don’t cover the cost of living, are forced to do unpaid overtime to keep up with unrealistic production targets and are faced with poor working conditions. There are several articles in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) that relate to these issues, meaning that basic human rights are being denied to factory workers. These include the right to an adequate standard of living (Art. 11), the right to form and participate in trade unions (Art 8) and the right to a fair wage and decent working conditions (Art. 7). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recognises that “in some countries certain categories of workers … are denied the right of association, workers’ and employers’ organizations are illegally suspended or interfered with, and in some extreme cases trade unionists are arrested or killed.”

In the March 2013 report, “Fatal Fashion”, by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations and Clean Clothes Campaign (SOMO & CCC) the garment industry is described as ‘the backbone of the Bangladesh economy’, contributing ‘17 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product’. Bangladesh is as an example of a developing country that has seen great benefits economically as a result of the clothing industry. However, it is also an example of the failures on the part of government, retailers, suppliers and factory owners to ensure that factory workers earn a living wage and work in safe, humane conditions.

The recent collapse of a factory complex in Bangladesh, resulting in over a thousand people being killed, has put the link between poverty and consumerism in the spotlight. As the factories in this building, and others like it, were suppliers for popular fashion chains in the UK and Europe, it is clear that many of us are consumers of products that are manufactured in exploitative conditions in the developing world.

The SOMO & CCC report blames incidents such as this in Bangladesh on a ‘rapid expansion of the industry’, which has led to factories being built without permits, having extra floors added to them, ‘inadequate escape routes’ and housing machinery that is too heavy for the buildings, which themselves have been built as ‘quickly and cheaply as possible’. This occurs in part because there is very high demand from retailers to keep the costs from their suppliers at an unrealistically low rate. Labour behind the Label have criticised retailers for constantly changing suppliers in order to keep their costs as low as possible for the purpose of making bigger profits as suppliers try to keep their own costs as low as possible by neglecting workers and health and safety requirements. Suppliers cover their own costs to maximise profits by paying workers as little as possible and forcing overtime to keep up with unrealistic production demands.

With all of this in mind, it seems that consumerism does nothing but contribute to poverty in the developing world. What is slowly being realised, however, is that as consumers, we can choose where we shop and we also have a voice. With the help of NGOs and charities such as Labour behind the Label, Actionaid, Avaaz and War on Want we can lobby and encourage big brands to, at the very least, provide for a living wage and decent working conditions for the people producing goods at suppliers’ factories.

Labour behind the Label is a UK based campaign that works to encourage retailers to, at the very least, provide for a living wage for workers in their supply chains. It pressures clothing brands to include a breakdown in their contracts with suppliers so as to ensure a living wage for factory workers. An important way to ensure workers are being paid enough is through unionisation. They have also developed a handy grading system for consumers to make a more informed choice about where we shop based on whether a retailer enforces a living wage for factory workers in its supply chain or not.

In the aftermath of the factory collapse in Bangladesh, the lobbying of retailers by individuals and through campaigns has intensified. Avaaz has collected almost a million signatures for its, “Guilt-free Clothing” campaign, calling on retailers such as H&M, GAP and Calvin Klein to sign a fire and building safety agreement. It has also since been reported in the Guardian newspaper that the Bangladesh government has relaxed trade union laws, is working to increase the minimum wage to coincide with a living wage and has encouraged retailers to sign a ‘legally binding agreement to help finance fire safety and building improvements in the factories they use in Bangladesh’. Although these steps have come too late for many people, they are slowly heading in the right direction to ensure that factory work in developing countries doesn’t have to mean exploitation and poverty.

Esma Helvacioglu


References, and for more information:

SOMO & CCC, (2013) Fatal Fashion: Analysis of recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh:  A call to protect and respect garment workers’ lives. SOMO & CCC: Amsterdam


Legally Trapped: UK Legislation Concerning Migrant Domestic Workers Regresses Whilst Middle Eastern Initiatives Look Progressive

Prior to April 2012 the UK was considered a (comparatively) progressive and well regarded country with respect to its national legislation surrounding Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs). MDWs enter a country with an employer to work in a private household, typically responsible for tasks such as childcare, housework and cooking. The nature of their work, as an employee in a private household, means that MDWs are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if they are unlucky enough to work for manipulative and cruel individuals. Thus, if society is to protect these individuals from those who believe that they can exploit and abuse, strong and practical legal protections are crucial. In 2010 elements of the legal protections available to MDWs in the UK were praised by the international community as examples of good practice (albeit amongst recommendations that further protections be implemented, indicating that although progressive, UK legal protection of MDWs still was not complete). What is clear though is that, in 2010 in terms of its national legislation, the UK had got some things right.

In contrast, Middle Eastern States were highlighted as ‘bad’ examples; states that should look to the example of ‘good practice’ states, such as the UK. Much of this critique stemmed from the use of the ‘Kafala’ system which was the basis for much of the legislation concerning MDWs in many Middle Eastern countries. Legislation based upon the ‘Kafala’ system ties a MDW to a specific employer or sponsor in that country, meaning that the MDW does not have the right to change employer. To illustrate; MDWs in Lebanon who are vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, and realities such as little (or no) pay, extreme working hours and poor living conditions, are yet unable to legally leave these abusive employers. Heavy criticism rained down on Lebanon in 2010 with Western states such as Canada, Norway, France and Poland calling on Lebanon to replace the current system with one that complied with international standards. It was noted that due to the tie between employer and employee a total dependency of the worker on the employer is created which in itself creates total vulnerability and opens the door wide to exploitation. Crucially, the right to change employer was highlighted as being instrumental in ensuring that migrant domestic workers were able to escape abusive situations. The fact that a MDW could change employer in the UK was highly regarded; the defining difference between the ‘Kafala’ system and that in the UK.

However, in 2011 the UK began to tarnish its reputation in the international community. It joined countries such as Sudan and El Salvador in refusing to commit itself to international legislation which would provide protection of labour rights (e.g. National Minimum Wage and maximum working hours) for MDWs. 172 states voted in favour of this piece of international legislation; the UK was one of only 11 countries which chose not to.

This was the top of a slippery slope which has resulted in drastic legislative changes affecting MDWs living and working in the UK; with a government move towards, rather than away from, a system similar to the ‘Kafala’ system so highly criticised by Western States.

The fundamental change in law was simple. From April 2012 those coming to the UK on an Overseas Domestic Worker Visa would no longer be entitled to change their employer (other changes were also introduced; for more information click here). With one swift move, the UK government wiped out one of the most important protections available to MDWs which ensured that they would be able to leave an employer who may exploit and abuse. The ‘Kafala’ system, criticised by many members of the international community, is now, in one crucial and defining way, indistinguishable from the system that we have had in the UK since April 2012.

Kalayaan, a charity dedicated to offering practical assistance, and advocating for the rights of MDWs working in the UK, has seen first-hand the results of this change in law. With the one year anniversary of the legal changes Kalayaan produced a brief which highlights their findings. Unsurprisingly, just as with the ‘Kafala’ system in Lebanon, those on the new ‘tied’ visa are statistically more likely to be exploited and abused than those who have the right to change employer. It is estimated that in 2008 at least 95 MDWs died in Lebanon; horrifyingly 40 of these were suicides and 24 were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often whilst trying to escape employers. This level of desperation is not surprising when Kalayaan’s statistics are considered; of those MDWs in the UK on the new ‘tied’ visa 100% were paid less than £100 per week, with 62% being paid no salary at all, 85% did not have their own room, 96% were not allowed out unsupervised, and 100% did not have a single day off.

As the UK regresses, it seems that, paradoxically, countries in the Middle East are showing progressive movements away from the problems of the ‘Kafala’ system. Initiatives in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, although of mixed strength and success, are developing, and crucially, they are all making changes which see them moving away from the ‘tied’ visa system and towards systems where MDWs have the right to change their employers. The UK should be ashamed that whilst other States with poor human rights records are making progressive steps, it, a supposed leader in this area, is in fact regressing, whilst also falling behind in the international arena.

Lobbying, campaigning or volunteering for charities which work for the rights of this largely invisible and highly vulnerable group of people will help in the struggle to ensure that we do not allow the UK government to continue its regressive movements down a dangerous and slippery slope. Public ignorance and apathy of such issues remains a crucial factor in the success of this regressive legislation which detrimentally affects the lives of hard-working, poorly paid and vulnerable people. If you are not able to spare the time to lobby, campaign or volunteer then I urge you simply to better inform yourself and others about the issues faced today by members of our workforce. An informed public is an important step towards a more progressive society.


For a fully referenced copy of this article please click here

Rosie Boggis