Sweatshops: capitalism's demons!
"There’s no such thing as cheap clothing. Somebody has to pay. In this case it’s the workers in Manchester”…Neil Kearney, trade unionist.
The BBC has dug up a good story: sweatshops in Manchester, England! One of their reporters went under-cover to work in the factory that finishes cheap clothing for Primark. The chain store is famous for selling fashionable clothes at knock down prices. People flock to the stores. When the Oxford Street branch opened last year, there was a stampede and some customers got taken to hospital.
Britain still relies on local sweatshops in Manchester and other places to finish off clothing made around the world (Indian sweatshops were the subject of an earlier BBC Primark programme). The reporter found migrant workers in Manchester without documents working for less than the legal minimum wage. Sanitation and kitchens were in a mess and workers were under great pressure to finish the Primark orders on time.
Primark is today’s Big Bad Capitalist Demon!
Each time I use my local Primark store in Peckham (yes: I buy my sox and sexy underpants there), the store is crammed with low income Peckham shoppers.
Their interest: sweat-shirts not sweat-shops.
We all buy products made by badly paid workers (some made by slaves but that's another story). We thinking-class liberals may tut tut, but secretly we accept it. After all, we love bargain hunting. But we also enjoy naming and shaming those big bad capitalist demons! Here's why.
Fifteen years ago, I brought a Sri Lankan friend of mine over to England for a "three week holiday". He stayed ten years and so became a legal resident. I found him a job working for Benjys, a chain of quality sandwich makers. Their sandwiches were easily the cheapest in London. We all knew why! Benjys paid below the legal minimum wage, deducted tax and insurance but failed to pay the government. Each year, the firm would hold a Xmas party for the staff and hand out presents (usually cheap cameras). If any government inspectors came to look over the premises, Benjys would lock up the migrants in a cupboard for a couple of hours, until the inspectors had left.
Smart people who bought the sandwiches knew the score. They just liked the sandwiches.
When my friend found a better paying job, he felt angry that Benjys had treated him so badly. I decided to phone the Tax Office and ask if they were interested in knowing about a London café chain that did not pay its taxes. You bet they were! But I changed my mind. I didn’t want to jeopardize the jobs of hundreds of migrant workers with nowhere else to go.
A few years earlier, I took a part time job washing dishes at a posh west London restaurant, serving English fine cooking and English wines. The owner, a London magistrate, paid under the legal minimum. Each Xmas, we got a $50 bonus and a greetings card! I told him he was breaking the law and he got very angry with me. He kept me on: he needed someone to wash the dishes. Times were bad: I needed a job.
The following year, I worked as a community organizer for a neighbourhood law centre in London. We focused on low pay in shops, hotels, restaurants and the garment industry. We had some success in catering. Tackling the sweatshops in London's East End was hard work. The trade union rep was 60 years old and had worked in the industry all his life. But he made little difference. I tried to get publicity for their plight. But none of the thinking-class armchair lefties were interested in local sweatshops at the time. They were too busy marching Against The Bomb. Besides, the east end of London is a world away from where the thinking-classes hang out!
Today, those thinking-classes are buying ‘organics’: healthy eating is of course all the rage.
No one asks how many migrants it takes to fill the vegetable trays, out in the muddy fields of East Anglia. Migrants toil each day: they cut the cabbages, they pull the parsnips, and pack the punnets of strawberries and other soft fruits. In the cold and in the rain. They get up early and travel long distances: different farms each day. None of us knows what happens to them when they don't get paid. How do they survive? Who knows? We know vaguely that the migrants come from ‘somewhere abroad’ and that the gangmasters organise the work and take their 'cut'. But the gangmasters are often unlicensed, cruel, on the make…
And we Brits know we would never take such jobs.
A few years ago, I met a senior staff member from The Body Shop (“Beauty with a conscience”) while flying to Bangkok. She was in charge of "Corporate Social Responsibility". We talked quite frankly, as you do, knowing we would never meet again. I accused Body Shop of all sorts of things, including a failure to police adequately the firm’s supply chain. She agreed with me! She said the company was fully behind its CSR Statement but recognised the problems. How could she know about the intricacies of labour law in every country the company used? She knew quite a bit about Thailand and Malaysia and a fair amount about the Sri Lankan factories.
But China and India? They were far too complicated for her to have a decent grasp of the different conditions in all 28 of India's States, or to feret out the sweatshops hidden in isolated villages outside Beijing. She did as much as she could. All she could hope was that this would be an example to the rest of the supply chain to behave 'reasonably'.
So I asked her straight: why do you do all this? Surely labour law and its enforcement is the responsibility of the national governments. "Of course", she said. “But we are under pressure from our ethically sensitive customers”.
So, am I missing something here?
Of course! The Thinking-Classes have read Schumacher's Small Is Beautiful: economics as if people mattered. So they think the Big Boys are the Demons!
But they're wrong: it's all of us.
We think, we gossip at our dinner tables. We expostulate. We buy carefully - cheap, in these days of recession (the laws of the economists' Supply and Demand).
They (the migrants) work, wherever they can find a job, at the going rate for migrants. It's hard, it's dirty, and it's dangerous! And it's badly paid. They get conned by the employers too. They get conned by the lanlords.
But the Big Boys with the Cheap Prices? They survive. And the small shopkeepers fiddle where they can. They have learnt how to label the carrots - "organic"!
And so it goes on!
Primark for sox and sexy underpants? Of course not! It’s a lie: it just makes good copy! No… I buy mine from a ‘source’ where the cotton is grown organically, using the best animal manure, with fresh, cool water to grow the cotton, coming from clear mountain streams or natural springs. The dyes used are solely from vegetables. The goods are ethically manufactured, using the highest labour standards, and the sanitation quite excellent. The whole supply chain uses the best quality bio-fuels for transporting them all to Britain!
I’ve got a leaflet to prove it!
"Sweatshops are a great example of the virtues of free trade and freemarkets": David Vekoler (graduate student), TheBatt Student Newspaper, Sept 2003, Texas A&M College, USA.