PART I : Looking at the labels
I avoid buying goods made with exploited labour, and have investigated various hiking/climbing companies in order to find out who has a focus on ethical manufacture. This has been hugely informative not only in revealing to me the horrifying and depressing human rights transgressions made in the quest for cheap clothing and gear, but also in showing the gear companies in a new light. It’s interesting to wander through Addnature and see which brands must be making ridiculous profits with premium priced gear subcontracted out at arm’s length to the cheapest cut’n’sew factories, and to see which brands manage to sell competitively priced gear despite manufacturing out of their own factories in high-cost developed countries.
This started five years ago when I had an argument with a friend. He said it was literally impossible to avoid purchases that were ‘Made in China’. I disagreed out of contrariness, started checking tags when buying clothes, and found there were some brands still manufacturing outside of South-East Asia. I began to buy Scandinavian stuff as much as possible, and thereafter European or other developed countries, figuring it would mean less shipping and a higher chance of having your goods made by someone with a decent wage and with decent healthcare. Since then I have spent a lot of time reading up on fair labour and contacting companies, and realised it’s not as simple as I thought. So now I want to write down my results and complicated conclusions.
What are sweatshops, and how do we influence them?
The worst sweatshops offer long hours, low wages, physical, mental and sexual abuse, discrimination, dangerous work environments and near-slavery conditions when passports are confiscated and workers are forced to pay back job-placement loans or squalid on-site housing rents at exorbitant rates. Yet there seems to be no shortage of people willing to work in these conditions. Coercion to work cannot explain the queues of people trying to find work in these factories. Jeffrey Sachs, noted economist, says it is the lure of getting away from back-breaking physical labour on a farm that attracts so many to every newly opened factory.
The definition of a sweatshop is a factory which breaks labour rules (too low wages, forced overtime, or a dangerous work environment, for example). Judging from the literature on the subject, the most abusive workplaces in less developed countries (LDCs) are domestic. Export focused factories are generally better places to work at with higher wages. Higher tech factories pay better than lower tech (so metal working pays more than textile work). Some economists dismiss those that protest large multinationals setting up factories in LDCs because the more abusive domestic factories are being ignored, but obviously it is difficult to influence these factories, whereas every time we buy some piece of hiking gear made in a developing country, we are essentially voting with our money. We can influence how companies act in the developing world by rewarding those that act well, and boycotting those that don’t.
However well meant actions in the first world can have devastating unintended consequences in the developing world. For example panicking garment factories in Bangladesh dismissed an estimated 50,000 child workers, most of them girls, when in the US the Harkin bill was introduced, outlawing the import of goods made with child labour. UNICEF led investigations into the fates of these children, discovering many had ended up in more hazardous workplaces, on the streets or even in prostitution.
Are sweatshops so bad?
I don’t avoid ‘Made in China’ because of anything negative about China, development in China is a global miracle that everyone benefits from. China has gone through an incredible boom, and despite the exploitative labour practices and horrifying environmental damage, it has managed to follow the route taken by India, South Korea, and Taiwan and ridden the capitalist locomotive out of the ghetto, moving a billion people out of poverty in the last three decades. I argue with my belayer Jenny S a lot about this, she thinks first world companies manufacturing in developing countries is exploitation and any kind of exploitation is unforgivable no matter the eventual upsides, whereas I think you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and that economic growth will do more than charity and subsidies for improving living standards. Relatively shitty worker care and pollution now, developed country status later.
Sweden, England, the US and Japan all had sweatshops with exploited workers during their development, why should Vietnam, Bangladesh or China be denied sweatshops as a stepping stone to prosperity now? (I’ll leave the ‘But are we in the West with our high GDP, cutting-edge healthcare, universal education and open society really happy?’ argument for others to pick apart.)
A figure from Free the Worlds 2011 report (pdf)
Hopefully wealth will not bloom alone in China, (shared) wealth brings freedom, and poverty goes hand in hand with oppression. The order of countries in the world, as ranked by freedom, are roughly in the same order as when ranked by GDP. To buy products made fairly in a developing country will help economically and in the long term might bring about greater social change in the form of a more open society. Glibly put; exploited today, empowered tomorrow. Swedish writer Johan Norberg states;
(sweatshop critics) say that we shouldn’t buy from countries like Vietnam because of its labor standards, they’ve got it all wrong. They’re saying: “Look, you are too poor to trade with us. And that means that we won’t trade with you. We won’t buy your goods until you’re as rich as we are.” That’s totally backwards. These countries won’t get rich without being able to export goods.
It’s not as simple as the quote insinuates, sweatshops by definition are exploitative, and it’s not necessary to exploit developing countries in order to manufacture cheap goods there (many of the companies I contacted has admirable manufacturing policies in China that ensured well-paid and protected workers while still taking advantage of the lower costs of living to make cheap goods). It is an infinitely debatable point as to where the line between exploitation and fair outsourcing lies, although I am sure everyone can get behind outsourcing when basic safety standards and worker protections are in force.
Skipping over the painful transition from subsidence farming, poverty and the occasional spectre of famine to running water, literate populace and free education is a literally Utopian idea. Making sure the companies that manufacture in the developing world use ethical labour, have a code of conduct and perform audits on vendors would give us as close to that Utopian ideal as we can have, fairly treated workers, higher GDP and cheaper goods for us lucky consumers.
Can there ever be fair labour in an oppressive regime?
Exploitative labour practices exist everywhere, even seasonally in Sweden (the link is in Swedish and is about exploitation of berry pickers). And there are plenty of factories in China which are very well run with strict codes of conducts and where the workers are paid very well. However, it is still far more common to find exploitative labour practices in South East Asia than in the West. It is estimated that 75% of the World’s estimated 12 million exploited workers are in Asia, and just 3% are in the EU and the US. UNICEF estimate that there are 210 million child workers in Asia, and in China child labour is becoming increasingly common.
If you invest time in finding which companies ‘do it right’ in China then you can buy non-exploitative Chinese gear, but if you aren’t bothered researching then generally gear made in the West is far more likely to be made fairly. And of course the company that ‘does it right’ in Asia might look after its workers well, but what about the vendors for that company? Can any manufacturer fully control working conditions in the companies supplying raw materials, machine parts, electricity, services and so on? In western countries there is already a massive state bureaucracy in place to monitor workplace safety in every facet of the economy, this is not true in many South-East Asian states. In fact it’s not uncommon for unionised strikes to be broken by state police, often with the use of fierce brutality. Again, the risk of having malpractice and abuse in the supply chain in China or Vietnam is much higher than it would be in the West.
From the vast amount of gear that bears the ‘Made in China’ label, there is a massive variance in how fair the labour behind the gear was. Avoiding Chinese-made products means avoiding both goods that have run through the chain of fly-by-night outsourced and subcontracted cut’n’sew agents, as well as goods made in carefully vetted, brand-owned factories. There is a world of difference between the nightmarish stories of beatings, virtual imprisonment and abuse from the sweatshops, and the well paid, safe and empowering jobs available with companies that take fair labour seriously.
However even if the company, and the vendors, and every part of the infrastructure surrounding the manufacture is carefully vetted, is it still wrong to purchase goods made in an oppressive regime? The definition of an oppressive regime can vary wildly, ethiscore.org give a score for oppression, depending on eight factors, including whether the country has the death penalty, has taken prisoners of conscience, how free it is rated by Freedom House and so on (although by their rationale the US is a proposed oppressive regime, with a score equal to that of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is nonsensical to the point of raising a question mark over the worth of the study). Transparency international publish the excellent corruption perception index, which rates nations on their abuse of public power for private good. Reporters without borders have their press freedom index. The (wonderful) Economist has their Democracy index. There are a wealth of freedom indices, and without fail it is the bottom half of table where China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and the many other common outsourcing countries reside.
Various freedom indices
Is it right then, even with the most careful controls for fair labour, to support regimes that consistently get labelled as being oppressive?
A lot of questions, not a lot of answers…
I had some preconceptions about outsourcing before I began to research in depth, and as I picked up more information I changed my mind about a lot of things. And then I read more and changed my mind again. And now in the last month I have contacted dozens and dozens of companies about how they manufacture ethically, and again I have had to reassess everything I thought I knew about ethics and outsourcing.
There are some companies that just don’t seem to give a shit about the idea of ethical labour. There are many that do, and there are a select few that really stunned me with fantastic, deeply passionate and well informed responses to my questions. I am currently to form all this response into a manageable post about how these hiking/climbing companies try to ensure their goods are made ethically.
Please feel free to throw in your thoughts on this subject.
Part two is now available here.