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Published on August 14th, 2013 | by George Bainbridge
Image © Rockers123 2013

Rocker123 2013

Sweatshops: Rung on the Ladder or Avoidable Misery?

Look at the label of the t-shirt you’re wearing. Or the jeans. The odds are that it will read ‘Made in [insert developing country here]’. I found items from China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Peru and Mauritius in my own wardrobe. It is as a result of the globalised economy in which we now live that we can buy clothing cheaply in the west as labour costs are kept down by outsourcing the labour-intensive work of clothing manufacturing to parts of the world where wages are low and work is cheap.

The working conditions in these factories are terrible. Hours are long, wages are pitiful, and in April over 1,100 workers were killed in a factory collapse in Bangladesh. The anti-poverty charity War on Want reports that 80% of workers work until 8pm or 10pm, after starting at 8am (well in excess of the legal limit on working hours), and that three quarters of the women workers we spoke to had been verbally abused at work and half had been beaten.

Do consumers have an obligation then to not buy clothes from companies that are known to have appalling working conditions in their supply chains, and boycott them? Or should governments legislate to force companies to adhere to certain standards in their supply chain? Instinctively, these courses of action seem to be good ideas; we don’t want other people to have to endure these terrible conditions just so we should be able to pay a few pounds less for a top. Instinctively, we want to help these people.

Boycotts are frequently levied against companies with sweatshops in their supply chain. They make a loud statement that consumers do not want to be associated with companies who employ such exploitative practices, and that they will not contribute to the profits of said company while it continues to do so. However, there are numerous problems with boycotts and many have dismissed them as an ineffective tool; the drop in demand which occurs when a company is boycotted (if the boycott is large enough to be effective) is rarely felt by the CEOs or the board, the people who make decisions in that company. Instead, many people argue, the drop in demand and thus reduced funds available for wages, is felt all too often by those on the lowest rung of the corporate hierarchy – the sweatshop workers that the boycott aimed to help in the first place. As a result of the drop in demand, these people are left out of a job and in even more grinding poverty than before.

Aside from boycotting these companies then, what else can be done to improve working conditions in these companies? War on Want campaigns for legislation guaranteeing the working standards of the workers supplying western high streets, arguing that this is the only way to achieve sustainable change, since previous voluntary initiatives have been unsuccessful in improving workers’ rights, pay or working conditions. They claim that with this legislation, companies would be forced to end exploitative practices and improve working conditions. Furthermore, with multinational corporations less able to take advantage of exploitatively low pay abroad, some argue it would be easier for small clothing companies to set up, thus providing an economic counterweight to the decline in large clothing companies’ profits caused by having to pay workers properly. Moreover, activists argue, the improvement in the quality of life of the workers in these factories is more important than the profit margins of multinational companies – as campaigners all over the world are fond of saying, these are real people and they matter.

Some economists such as Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist argue that sweatshops are the symptom, not the cause of shocking poverty. Pointing to the fact that workers go to these factories voluntarily and stay there (citing low employee turnover rates), he argues that this shows the alternatives that workers would be forced to were the companies to be boycotted are worse; running an illegal street stall, working as a prostitute or combing reeking landfills in cities like Manila to try find recyclable goods. Some even support sweatshops as a rung on the ladder to something better and being superior to the alternatives, arguing that sweatshops are part of a process. They claim that when more big companies set up factories in these countries they compete with each other for the best workers, driving up wages and working conditions.

Many economists believe that what is necessary for the countries in which sweatshops are located is to open up their economies more and try to attract more multinational companies. Given that legislation of the type proposed by War on Want would reduce multinationals’ profits and thus make them less likely to expand and set up new factories, these economists tend to support voluntary measures such as the Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh, signed by numerous retailers since the disaster in April.

The one thing neither side contests in this debate is that sweatshop working conditions are appalling and that we should work to end them. The differences between the two sides come largely in terms of methods; should we pursue standards-raising legislation, or encourage governments in the developing world to open their economies up more to multinational clothes producers? Whatever the answer, it is encouraging that the debate has moved to a mere question of methods rather than whether or not to do anything. With time, and the dedication of all involved, perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel for sweatshop workers in the developing world.

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About the Author

George Bainbridge

George is a current History and Politics student from Leeds at the University of Warwick. Interests include British politics, International Relations and developing countries. Next year George plans to focus his degree on International Political Economy, and the History of Brazil as well as political theory. Hobbies include competitive debating, following the ups and downs of Leeds United Football Club and figuring out how to save the world.

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