Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Sweatshop bargains

Like most people, I like to get things cut-price rather than forking out the maximum. But I'm also aware that my bargain shirt or pair of jeans may be at someone else's expense.

And not just in grimy sweatshops on the other side of the world. There are plenty of sweatshops right here in the UK where people labour twelve hours a day to churn out cheap clothes for chains like Primark.

People flock to Primark for their unbelievably low prices, a fraction of what you'd usually expect, and they seldom ask themselves how such rock-bottom prices are possible.

A BBC programme put the finger on TNS knitwear in Manchester where, it's claimed, employees work up to twelve hours a day seven days a week for as little as £3.50 an hour - about half the national minimum wage. Some of the workers are also said to be illegal and not entitled to work.

Primark denies all the claims, but the BBC undercover reporter who got a job there wasn't asked about her legal status and was offered just £3.50 an hour.

There was no heating in her work area and employees had their coats on in freezing temperatures. The work was physically exhausting amid ear-splitting noise. Employees said they were under constant pressure to meet orders.

There are plenty more sweatshops just like that around Britain, which the ordinary shop customer knows nothing about. The grim reality is concealed behind glossy advertising and prominent claims that factory working conditions are carefully monitored. In fact monitoring is usually erratic and superficial and allows Victorian conditions to continue unabated.

But what can the average shopper do about it? Even if I insisted on paying the realistic price for clothing (£50 for a pair of jeans?), there's no guarantee the extra cash would end up in the pockets of the workers. It's just as likely it would turn into a bigger profit for the companies or fatter salaries for the owners.

Unless there were strict controls over where all that extra income went, the sweatshops wouldn't necessarily disappear.

Perhaps we should demand the right to inspect the factories where our clothes are made and see just how their employees are treated. An army of beady-eyed customers invading these hidden grindstones would bring a few drastic changes.

I see that even using the internet adds to global warming. Just two Google searches are the equivalent of boiling a kettle. Ye Gods, what do I do now? Close down my blog? Bin my computer?


Anonymous said...

I prefer to buy a cheap sweatshop product than an expensive sweatshop product. The expensive one just tells me whilst they pay shit wages they make heaps more profit. Although I guess the cheap sweatshop products probably get the business owners equally huge profits due to large volume sales. The whole sweatshop thing is indeed modern slavery.

Nick said...

GayƩ - This is it, however much you pay, most of it seems to find its way into the pockets of the greedy few who run the businesses.

The Dotterel said...

I suppose we've just got to give as much support to investigative teams like those at the BBC, and hope exposure either shames the bastards or gets them shut down. Where are the industrial philanthropists of yore?

Nick said...

Dotterel - Yes, hats off to the BBC and other journos for exposing this kind of thing, otherwise we're be in blissful ignorance. And yes again, some of the Victorians treated their workers a lot better than today's slavedrivers.

Anonymous said...

This is really horrible and something I often think about. Surely the government should be able to do more. If I buy a clothes item for a couple of euro or I go for an expensive brand chances are the difference is not going to the worker but to the well off execs at the top end.

Fate's Granddaughter said...

There seems to be no problem with regulating the public and individual citizens, why does government shy away from regulating business? I am all for personal accountability, but sometimes I think that too much is asked of the consumer, especially in these difficult financial times (can you tell I bought my maternity coat at Primark and have had wild guilt issues ever since?).

Thanks for making the point that it is going to take more than the customer to make a change here.

Wisewebwoman said...

I think we all need to ask more questions, Nick, when it comes to whatever we buy.
None of us have been paying any kind of realistic price for anything for years and years.
And none of us are free from blame for having sweat shop tears on our PJ's.
My pet hate is the idiots who pay a small fortune for a hoodie or sweatshirt just for the privilege of free advertising for the manufacturers across their chests or backs. And those manufacturers are usually sweat shop owners.

Nick said...

Conor - The government certainly should do more, but as with the banks they're reluctant to interfere with big business. But surely working conditions should be the first priority of a so-called Labour government?

FG - Hear hear, it's still often a case of caveat emptor with the customer expected either to apply pressure or boycott an offending shop. But as I say, usually we don't even know how the goods are produced. And no need to feel guilty for buying at Primark when most other clothes shops are probably just as bad.

www - But should we pay a "realistic" price if in reality that only means more profit for the company? I do agree about clothes that advertise (and with designer labels for that matter) - they're just exploiting the wearers' need for status.

Wisewebwoman said...

To clarify, Nick:
Realistic price would be a local company paying decent wages to local workers. I don't care about the profit.
I do recognise that local products are hard to find but are worth the search.
I try to avoid China, India et al but others in my family feel any help thrown at these beleagured workers is better than none at all. I disagree.

Thriftcriminal said...

Buy clothes to last is all I can suggest, drop demand and the structure will collapse.

Tyler Durden says:

"In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."

Nick said...

www - "A local company paying decent wages to local workers". Absolutely. Isn't it about time we had a Fair Trade scheme for clothes? But avoiding China is virtually impossible these days - every other product is made there.

Thrifty - But even durable, long-wear clothes could still be made by exploited workers. I hadn't come across Tyler Durden - an interesting character. I see he is "opposed to popular culture, materialism, capitalism and most technology". Sounds healthy to me.

Thriftcriminal said...

True, but the companies in question only work when they have economies of scale. Take that away and the system atrophies.

Nick said...

Thrifty - But surely long-wear clothes can still be made in large quantities and sold through thousands of outlets across the world? North Face for example?

Thriftcriminal said...

Depends. The spirit of the quote has the implicit suggestion that there is no necessity to purchase any other clothes as a consequence of it's durability.

Nick said...

Thrifty - In theory maybe. Now all we have to do is persuade everyone that they don't have to change their clothes every day and every time a new fashion rolls in.

Baino said...

We have the same problem with an influx of cheap clothing made in China, the quality however is dubious so I try to avoid it.
Sweatshops aren't an issue here, it's more the 'outworkers' people who set up with a sewing machine in their garage and are paid peanuts whilst the retailer laughs all the way to the bank. Highly illegal but it happens. I'm into 'fair trade' stuff these days, have given up chocolate and since I'm hardly a fashionista, practical and durable clothing made in Australia is the way I go. Not easy tho! Try finding shoes other than Blundstones that are made here!

As for internet use . . plant a couple of trees to reduce your carbon footprint.

Nick said...

Baino - I think we have outworkers too, though sweatshops are more common. Fair Trade is good. There's a place called Dundonald just east of Belfast that has recently become an official Fair Trade centre because it's pledged to use and supply a range of Fair Trade products.

Clare said...

Thanks for raising this. It's something I've been thinking about for a long time too, without really knowing what to do about it. You might be interested in the work of these girls and their www.re-dress.ie organisation.


Nick said...

Clare - No thanks needed. I'm always acutely aware when I'm working in a civilised workplace, which observes legal rights and has a trade union, that millions of others work in the most grotesque conditions that makes them wonder whether life's worth living at all.