Recently we ambushed Oxford Street shoppers for a survey on ethical shopping. But as we pounded the pavements of central London we found lots of shoppers asking us the same questions. Why should we care about sweatshops? What are they? Shouldnt people be grateful for any work they can get? If they werent working in a sweatshop wouldnt the workers be worse off? How can we change things? The answers are not always clear-cut, but we hope that this outline guide will bust a few myths about sweatshop workers, owners and customers.
What is a sweatshop anyway?
The word sweatshop described a nineteenth century system where subcontractors sweated out profits from the difference between the price of their product and the wages they paid. In the 21st Century the system is still thriving.
Sweatshops are generally defined as workplaces exploiting manual labourers. This refers to wages that are below the cost of living, dangerous working conditions and arbitrary discipline such as physical and verbal abuse. A typical example is the Nike factories in Indonesia, which according to the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) report in March 2002, paid its workers so little they cannot afford to have their children living with them.
The factory also refuses to buy their workers protective equipment. Ironically employees making Nikes state-of- the-art trainers may lose their own feet because the factory will not provide them with strong shoes to safeguard them from the heavy machinery they work with.
Why do people work in Sweatshops?
Because they have no other choice. Companies take their factories to areas where wages are low and there is less emphasis on workers rights. The cost of living may be less then in developed nations, but the minimum wage of these countries does not even cover this. Countries such as China are particularly attractive, not just for their low wages but also because of their repressive apparatus and corporate secrecy, which make human rights hard to patrol. In a Chinese factory contracting for Disney, workers were threatened or intimidated to ensure they would falsify their work records and lie to any groups who arrived to monitor working conditions (CCC report February 2001). Foreign-owned companies keep their costs down by not having sick pay, pension insurance or maternity leave. If workers demand better pay, or if demand dries up the company has no difficulty in packing up and leaving the country leaving employees destitute.
Isnt it better then unemployment?
The only answer to this is why should there only be two choices? Multinational clothing companies spend literally millions of pounds on advertising and paying their CEO each year- surely some of this money could be spent paying workers enough so they can buy basic necessities?
Sweatshops are all in the Third World ? right?
No. According to Sweatshop Watch 98% of garment workers in Los Angeles have health and safety problems, which could lead to serious injury or even death. These include bad ventilation, overcrowded factories which are a fire risk and unsanitary bathrooms. 63% of New York factories violate minimum wage and overtime restrictions. The majority of workers in the US garment industry are immigrant women and many are verbally or even physically abused and intimidated if they speak out. They can also be threatened with deportation. In 2002 the GMB found in two weeks at least three sweatshops operating in the East End of London. Less than minimum wage, transgression of health and safety regulations and excessive hours were all cited.
How low is low?
For Nike workers in Indonesia one chicken costs more then a days wages. Childrens cough medicine is 121% of a basic daily wage and you would have to save 4 days wages to buy a pair of jeans.
But what can the companies do - if they put up their prices to pay wages, sales will fall and so will jobs?
The Chief Executive of The Gap in 1999 earned in excess of $7,000,000 - yes, seven million dollars a year -according to Sweatshop Watch, while the average worker in China would be paid just 23 cents-an-hour. The answer doesnt seem to hard- ask the CEO to take a small pay cut. If this seems unfair perhaps the answer is to cut the advertising budget. Global Exchange says Nike spends $560million on advertising, that means if it spent 2% less it could bring the whole of its Vietnamese workers wages up to a living wage, as requested by Vietnamese Labour Watch.
Cant we just boycott these companies?
For most of us the knee-jerk reaction is to stop buying products made by sweat or child labour. But according to NGOs and The International Labour Organisation (ILO), consumer boycotts can harm workers more than the company. When sweatshops using child labour were closed in Bangladesh and Pakistan through consumer pressure Save the Children, along with Bangladeshi NGOs, pointed out children were merely forced into worse forms of labour. This was because children often brought in 30% of a familys income. As girls were only allowed to work in domestic service, prostitution or brick breaking, escaping from the garment industry was not always an improvement.
But, boycotts called by the workers themselves can be effective. Workers at Forever 21 in Los Angeles are trying to make this multi-million pound company pay the back wages they owe them. After working 10 to 12 hours a day for below minimum wage and no overtime in appalling conditions they are taking their employers to court and trying to ensure a fair deal for others.
The easiest and most effective way to help improve the lives of garment workers is to make sure the shops you buy from know you care about how their clothes are made not just what they look like.
About The Author:
I work with the Green Directory http://www.guidemegreen.com and the Ethical Directory http://www.getethical.com to promote a greener and healthier lifestyle. I also promote eco friendly Jobs and Employers at http://www.jobs.guidemegreen.com