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.
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