Clothes shopping is a big incentive for many people to travel into Liverpool City Centre, especially since the building of Liverpool One. We have the full range from high-end for the luxury fashionista to low-end for the bargain hunter. Shoppers are generally on a mission to get what they want for the right price. We rarely give a thought to those who actually make the clothes we buy. Katy Brown of Ethical Consumer Magazine links some of Liverpool's big brand clothing stores to workers' rights abuses around the world.
Big Brand Bullies
There have been numerous exposés of appalling working conditions in the garment sector, linking big high street brands to workers' rights abuses overseas. This coupled with the hard work of campaign groups, has led to significant improvements, particularly around health and safety and child labour. Yet garment workers around the world, the majority of whom are women, are still working long hours for poor pay.
A recent report by Labour Behind The Label and War on Want, 'Taking Liberties', exposed workers' rights abuses in the garment industry in the city of Gurgaon, India, where many high street retailers have their clothes made. These abuses include poverty wages and discrimination. Companies sourcing from the factories studied included H&M, Marks & Spencer, Monsoon, Next, Debenhams and Arcadia, which owns Top Shop, Burton, BHS, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge.
The International Textile Garment & Leather Workers' Federation recently reported poor working conditions at a number of sportswear factories in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Marks & Spencer and Gap were both named as buying from these factories.
Some companies have started to address the issue of a living wage. However, many companies have made no commitment. These include Gap, H&M, Marks & Spencers, TK Maxx and River Island.
Whilst these companies exploit cheap labour, many of them also avoid paying UK tax. Arcadia, New Look, Monsoon, Peacocks and River Island are all owned by holding companies in tax havens whilst John Lewis, Gap, Zara, H&M, Marks & Spencer and Primark all have subsidiaries in tax havens. Essentially these companies are taking full advantage of the current capitalist system to maximise profits at the expense of paying workers enough to live on and paying their dues in terms of tax.
In December 2010 Bangladesh's garment-making workforce took to the streets in a series of protests against their working conditions. Police and companies fought back, turning peaceful protests into violent battles in their attempts to quash the uprising, leaving dozens of men and women wounded and some dead. At the end of 2010 the minimum wage was almost doubled - although it still falls far short of what the 'Asia Floor Wage Campaign' considers a living wage.
Bangladesh is by no means the only place where such revolts have been occurring.
What you can do:
Ethical Consumer has rated the high street clothing companies and can't currently recommend any of them, although New Look did come top, scoring 100% on the management of its supply chain for the protection of workers' rights, and it has an organic range.
Buy from charity shops and recycle or why not organise a clothes swap or 'swish'.
Look out for fairly traded products, as these guarantee decent working conditions for the people who make them.
Raise ethical concerns by asking in shops where clothes are made.
Ethical Consumer has recently published an extensive report on the clothing industry which can be downloaded from the organisation's website www.ethicalconsumer.org for £3. Full yearly access to the Ethical Consumer database, including a subscription to the magazine, costs £29.95. Ethical Consumer is a non-funded, independent, grassroots organisation, reliant on public support to fund our research into corporate misbehaviour.
There are a number of campaigns working on these issues that you can add your voice to:
Sumangali Schemes - capturing women to make our clothes
One of the most extreme examples of female exploitation for the garment industry has been documented in a recent report, 'Captured by Cotton', published by Dutch social justice research organisation SOMO in May of this year. The report reveals how garment suppliers in India are exploiting young unmarried women to provide themselves with a cheap, captive workforce. The report documents the widespread use of the 'Sumangali Scheme' in the Tamil Nadu garment industry. The Tamil word Sumangali refers to a married woman who leads a happy and contented life with her husband with all fortunes and material benefits. Mainly poor families from rural areas send their daughters to work in garment factories with the Sumangali Scheme in order to save up for their dowry, by working a three-year contract at a factory with a promised lump sum at the end of it.
According to SOMO, the reality of working under the Sumangali Scheme stands in sharp contrast to the attractive picture that is presented to the girls and young women during the recruitment process. Excessive overwork, low wages, no access to grievance mechanisms or redress, restricted freedom of movement and limited privacy are part and parcel of the working and employment conditions under this scheme. The lump sum promised is not a bonus, but part of the regular wage that is withheld by the employer. Often women workers do not even receive the full promised lump sum. SOMO say:
Without exaggeration, the Sumangali Scheme in its worst form has become synonymous with unacceptable employment and labour conditions, even with bonded labour.
Zara, Gap, Marks & Spencers, Next and Primark are five city centre shops named as buying clothing supplied from such schemes.
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