08 December 2006

Fashion Victims

I know there is nothing new in a report on Western companies sourcing goods from factories where the workers are paid starvation wages to work long hours in appalling conditions. Still, it was heartening to see that the following story is still highly newsworthy. It was a top item on the BBC breakfast news and it is widely reported in the British press.
War on Want issued a report today on the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. These factories provide garments for Tesco, Asda and Primark. The following is an extract from the Independent report.

According to the report some Bangladeshi workers making cheap clothes for Asda, Tesco and Primark are paid as little as 3p an hour. Basic pay in factories that cut and sew fabric for budget chains can be just £8 a month for an 80-hour week. With overtime of around £3 a month, some workers were receiving just £11 a month for a week’s work - 3.1p an hour. This is half the living wage in Bangladesh. Workers have also complained that joining a trade union was banned and being cheated by bosses of overtime pay. Beatings and sexual harassment were also said to occur.

War on Want interviewed 60 workers from six factories for its report, Fashion Victims. The charity chose the six factories at random to highlight conditions at suppliers for the budget end of British fashion. All six supplied Asda, four Tesco and three Primark.

Asda, Tesco and Primark are members of the Ethical Trade Initiative, whose code of conduct imposes a 48-hour week for workers and stipulates they should have one day off. Overtime shall be voluntary and not exceed 12 hours a week. However, the report said: "Investigation for this report shows that, in reality, working hours in factories supplying all three retailers far exceed this maximum. Across all six factories, most workers told us that they work from 12 to 16 hours per day and regularly work 80 hours a week."

The report said factories passed audits by the Western retailers by intimidating staff to lie. Many auditors gave factories 20 days' notice, plenty of time to clean dormitories, coach the workers and falsify records. The report said: "Retailers like Asda and Tesco often point to the audits they use to check working conditions. But these kinds of bulk auditing systems provide only a superficial assessment."
Dr Liu Kaiman, of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in Shenzhen, China, was quoted as saying: "The retailers and their suppliers are playing an elaborate game. They only want to reassure customers, not to improve conditions."

Primark said that if War on Want provided details of the factories, it would investigate. "Our low prices are the result of technology, efficient distribution and supply, bulk-buying and the fact that we spend almost nothing on advertising," said a spokesman. Asda said only organisations like War on Want and the retailers were trying to help workers and promised to introduce more unannounced audits and free phone lines for whistleblowers.

I doubt that this report will have much effect on Asda, Tesco and Primark sales. What do to? What would force such companies to improve pay and working conditions? Perhaps the only thing that may have any chance of working in the short term is to continue to shame the companies into action given that an egalitarian socialist society that encompasses the world is a long, long way off…
The full report is available from the War on Want website


Anonymous said...

The simple answer is to try and organise a mass boycott of such companies.

But that would also need information on what alternative sources are available for affordable clothes, with cast iron guarantees on the ethics of the manufacturers.

Also persuading people, often on tight budgets, that it's right to pay more for clothes (and toys, tat etc).

What we can do is keep talking about it. Like a drip drip drip effect

jams o donnell said...

I think the drip, drip, drip is likely to be the more successful of the two Gert. A boycott proably would be ineffectual even if desirable.

Pete said...

I don't know - a boycott (causing drop in demand) may also put Bangladeshi factory workers out of a job.

Meanwhile other brands (say) sourced from China, may take over.

Its a tough one.

jams o donnell said...

Good point Pete, it is a tough one indeed

elasticwaistbandlady said...

My Papi was on a kick to buy only clothing made in the U.S.A to ensure that slave labor wasn't being used. I told Papi that we'll either have to win the lottery or become nudists to do that because the "Made In The U.S.A" label is scarce and expensive.

If we ever go to war with China, we'll have to do it in barefeet since they supply the lions share of American shoes. Mostly in factories with reprehensible conditions. Shame on Nike(for one), and shame on me for buying them when they go on sale.

jams o donnell said...

Again that is another issue ewbl, ethics come with a price tag. My work shoes are British made - one pair cost nearly £200 and that was 10 years ago. That said they will last decades.

Shame? it is a dilemma rather than shame. If money is tight do you go to a shop that sells shirts a £5 or one that sells them af £40?

Steve Bates said...

I can't speak for the UK, but the US has let its domestic clothing industry go to ground almost completely, except for makers of very expensive custom clothing. And not everything sold here with the label "Made in the USA" really is what it claims, so we can't be certain that even the US's minimal labor laws ("more honoured in the breach than the observance") were followed.

It is a dilemma. All of us must find something we can afford to wear, or else follow in Sonia-belle's footsteps... she does not contribute to the problem. But most of us are bound by the social conventions of our neighbors. I have thought often about this problem, but have never come up with a satisfactory solution; the best I can do is to wear such clothes as I do buy until they are literally worn out.

jams o donnell said...

It is a jam, a dilemma and many other things Mullet.

THe same follows here. Most Made in Britain garments are high end eg Church's shoes etc. We do what we can, Steve. In this case waer clothes to destruction like I do and like you do!

I dont hold out much hope for a "socialist" governmetn in Bangladesh to do much to help.. it it is of the same stripe as China and Vietnam.. Neither is adverse to sweatshops in their countries.

jams o donnell said...

The problem, mullet, is finding a solution that will work. Despite being being on the left I don't necessarily have confidence in politics to make the change..

You are right to say people are people. We have the same motivations loves, hates etc regardless of nationality. Wherever we are, we are much the same.

beakerkin said...

I worked in his industry the whole story is not being told. Many of these factories are in places that have chronic unemployment.

The critics would point to low Haitian wages. However, a fashion company doing work in Haiti with the political instability is taking an enormous risk.
These countries also have large issues with corruption.

Why should a fashion company take a risk by placing production in Haiti with the rampant political problems, massive corruption and a variety of logistical problems. It is far easier and safer to produce in China.

jams o donnell said...

We are not talking about Haiti here but Bangladesh. True the factories may well be sited in palces of big unemployment but it is still no reason to offer starvation wages and appalling conditions.