Friday, December 08, 2006

The real victims of fashion

Workers in Bangladesh producing the cheap fashions that are sold in three high street stores earn as little as 5p an hour, says a report published today. Little wonder then that Tesco and Asda, the supermarket chains, together with clothes retailer Primark, reported profits over the last year totalling more than £2.6 billion. What the three have in common is a ruthless driving down of costs at the expense of suppliers in Britain and world wide. They are then able to sell a range of goods well below the average high street price. Milk farmers, for example, often sell their product to the supermarkets at less than cost price to keep their contracts. Even that is not good enough for the supermarkets, who are now importing cheaper milk from France. Cheap poultry from Asia is flown half way round the world to keep margins high. In its report, the campaigning charity War on Want says that workers in the Bangladeshi factories that supply Tesco, Asda and Primark are regularly at their machines 80 hours a week, in potential death trap factories. Starting wages in the factories researched were as little as £8 a month, barely a third of the country’s living wage. Even better paid sewing machine operators receive only £16 a month, which equates to 5p an hour for the 80 hours the mainly women employees regularly have to work each week. The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh halved in real terms during the 1990s, and many told the researchers that their pay is too low to cover food, housing and health costs.

Tesco, Asda and Primark claim they have received guarantees that workers would not have to work more than 48 hours on a regular basis. These have proved worthless. War on Want reports that owners have forced staff to work up to 140 hours a month overtime, often unpaid, or face dismissal. In February and March 2006, garment factory collapses and fires in Bangladesh left almost 100 workers dead and many others injured. Interviewees for War on Want’s report also stated that emergency exits are often kept locked in their workplaces. Louise Richards, chief executive of War on Want, says: "Bargain retailers such as Primark, Asda and Tesco are only able to sell at rock bottom prices in the UK because women workers in Bangladesh are being exploited. The companies are not even living up to their own commitments towards their overseas suppliers." The report points out that this is the story of garment workers throughout the world. Transnational corporations like the anti-union Walmart have instituted regimes of super-exploitation in developing countries so that consumers in the West can buy cheap fashions and food. The report’s exposure is welcome, but Louise Richards is whistling in the wind when she says that "the Labour government must bring in effective regulation to end such shameful practices". These are the everyday practices of giant corporations operating in every country. Their power to recruit and exploit cheap labour may be masked by the use of local agents, but they are ultimately in charge. Gordon Brown calls himself a "globalisation evangelist" and it is inconceivable that New Labour would ever press for regulations against corporations like Tesco and Asda in order to help foreign workers. Instead, ordinary people have the responsibility to act. Consumers can boycott clothes produced in sweat shops in Asia. All of us can use the War on War report and other information to build both a case and a momentum for placing the power and resources of the corporations on an alternative, not-for-profit footing.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I missed this story. Thanks for this. Whilst comsumers - us - bury our heads in the sand, the problem will continue. I suspect, the problem will continue for many years yet, but here's hoping for a miracle!