The Human Cost Of Our Cheap Fashions
by Ian R Thorpe.
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: science, climate, climate change, TV, television, numbers, academic, orthodoxy, mathematics, alarmism, green, environment, environmentalist, atmosphere, atmospheric, media, dissent, militant, atheist, school, education, witch hunt, tolerance
We in the west have grown accustomed to our luxurious lifestyles because thanks to the invisible form of slavery known as globalisation, for many years we have not had to pay realistic prices for the good that make life good.
Ok, it's a harsh choice of phrase but one calculated to get those and wringing, self righteous hypocrites of the developed nations squirming with embarrassment. How they love to lecture the more realistic of us about the iniquities of capitalism and the innate evil of 'the rich' as they parade around in their designer clothes, their 'fair trade' cotton or hemp underwear and their 'earth friendly' shoes. How their wallow in their assumptions of moral superiority as they remind us of the great wrong done to the dark skinned races by the evil slavers of Europe and those of us whose families though not directly involved in the slave trade grew rich on the sweat of the po' black folks.
It's all utter bollocks of course. Yes the slave trade was pretty unpleasant but 200 years ago, when it was ended by the British Empire, almost everybody was treated like shit. The factory workers and labourers, clerks, apprentices, agricultural workers and domestic servants in Europe were so tied to their employers (masters to use the colloquialism of the time) that they were slaves in all but name.
In Europe, Canada, Australia and the USA we moved on. New laws introduced initially as a result of the Protestant Reformation and then in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars improved the lot of workers. First they were allowed to form Friendly Societies in which everyone contributed a penny a week to protect those hit by misfortune from starvation. Then came the trade unions and finally when voting rights were extended it became possible for the lower orders to elect representatives from their own tanks to government.
While the colonies (the evil colonies controlled by evil Whitey) lasted the same laws applied in Africa, South East Asia and South America as were in the colonial power. They often were not applied in the same way and the locals were treated quite harshly. But the whites abolished slavery at least in principle. How closely the authorities policed what was going on in the native communities is a different matter but there have always been cruel, greedy and dishonest people in every race and religion. Once the colonists left however, the national governments, often controlled by tribal or sectarian factions could regress to pre colonial ways of doing things.
And of course they remembered that in spite of what self interested preacher politicians in the USA might be saying, slavery was not invented by Whitey not had it ever been the sole preserve of the Europeans.
In December 2010 a hundred Bangladeshi workers died in a factory fire. They had no chance of escape, the doors were locked to make sure nobody left before the days production quota was filled - no official finishing time there, the boss lets staff leave when he is satisfied - or stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
Last month a fire broke out at the That's It Sportswear factory, also in Ashulia. The facility, run by one of Bangladesh's biggest garment export companies, Ha-Meem, produces for global retailers including Gap. As always and there are many fatal garment factory fires in Bangladesh that nobody keeps count , the That's It fire was an accident waiting to happen. But this time it has received international press attention because of the size of the fatality list (still unconfirmed) and its chronological proximity to the unrest in the Arab world.
It was however just the latest tragedy such tragedy in a country where 40 million work long hours, seven days a week for a pittance to keep our high street shelves stocked with the kind of cheap goods we take for granted.
Even those who congratulate themselves on paying through the nose for 'fair trade' products are only swelling the bank accounts of bosses and a long line of middle men.
Since then we have seen escalating protests against necessary austerity measures brought in by governments and the reductions in living standards these will cause. The left might wring their hands at the plight of the third world poor but their concern does not extend to protesting about the sweatshop conditions the people who make their cheap guzzies and 'earth friendly' outfits are made to work in. We don't get that sort of protester turnout and action when garment workers producing for Arcadia and other high street retailers are discovered to be subsisting on slave wages.
Ask how retailers have managed to make fashion unprecedentedly cheap (in the past decade clothing prices have undergone a continual deflation) and they will give you the usual guff about their logistics genius, deft bargaining skills and how they don't waste money on advertising campaigns and expensive consultants because the 'brand' sells itself. This is the strategy apparently behind aviator jackets, skinny jeans and knitted cardigans that cost the same as a sandwich and a coffee. It's utter bollocks again of course, product placement costs a fortune, the glossy ads in magazines and on TV may have disappeared but stars and celebrities are paid fortunes to 'promote' (wear) certain brands all of which have labels and logos plastered prominently all over them.
And thus 'the brand sells itself' through the celebrity culture, through Hello magazine, through videos on You Tube. All that has changed is we do not see where the fortunes are being spent on marketing. The photo opportunity phishing zero talent has replaced the printed page or the television screen.
Furthermore fashionable clothes have become a disposable. We used to make clothes last. Now thanks to the none-too-subtle brainwashing of shows like Sex And The City it is unthinkable to wear the same item more than a few times. Quality counts for nothing, image is all. In Bangladesh alone more than 1.5 million pairs of jeans are sewn every year by an unseen, unacknowledged army of an estimated 40 million people. This army is the engine for the Cut Make and Trim (CMT) part of fashion business (the point in the fashion chain where the garment is assembled and sewn) and toils in about 250,000 garment factories, usually in backward nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nigeria. CMT work is contracted out by the garment makers that sell to the big retail chains so while the main contractor is subject to inspections to ensure standards are met, the contractors are not.
There have been attempts to control this part of the trade but as soon as a contractor is told to improve conditions they go out of business only to reappear almost immediately in another unsafe and poorly equipped corrugated iron shed.
Life in the CMT army is grim, particularly in Bangladesh. A report last year by the International Trade Union Confederation identified workers there as the "most poorly paid in the world" and reckoned exploitation to be on the increase rather than the decrease.
What does the government do? Helps the business community of course.
In January riots broke out in garment factories in Chittagong and Ashulia, north of Dhaka. Bangladesh's leading newspaper paper the Daily Star put it, "RMG workers go berserk", featuring photographs of upturned sewing machines and work tables. Protests by garment workers aren't uncommon, but last Sunday they were met by the Rapid Action Battalion (a sort of hybrid between the police and army) and at least three protesters appear to have been shot dead.
Similar things have been going on while the progressive lefties of the west were busy wringing their hands over the lack of democracy in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. Progressive lefties are a shallow, fickle lot, like a spoiled child with a new toy and the Bangaladeshi workers were quickly forgotten as there was a new cause celibre to celibrate, a new band wagon to jump on.
Not being fickle lefties who want not so much to do right as to be seen to do right we can look more deeply. For workers in such a risky situation as the Bangladeshi clothing workers to jeopardise their only source of income by protesting makes one think how desperate are they? The answer is very, very desperate. Labour rights groups have long warned that civil unrest from garment workers will only increase as food prices rise and ever decreasing wages as bosses cut pay to make up for increasing materials costs mean many people are trying to feed large families on less than £1 a day while working six to seven days a week. Aid agencies report that female workers in particular find it hard to consume enough calories to sustain them through their working hours.
We know that rudimentary, makeshift garment factories and fires go together. "There are three main issues that, ironically, were discussed at a conference in Dhaka two months ago," said Professor Doug Miller of the University of Northumbria.
"There's the electrical safety and propensity for electrical faults in these factories. There's the issues that where gangways exist they're not very clear or marked, and the whole situation can be exacerbated by the fact that garment factories can be on the 10th and 11th floors of buildings. Finally you have bad buying practices. Buyers place huge orders with short deadlines, which leads to excessive overtime and draconian rules in order to ensure orders are finished and dispatched to western clients on time. In many cases, workers are simply locked in, and that includes fire escapes."
Anna McMullen, of the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, said she is never surprised by these tragedies. And she said the audits offered up by big retailers as evidence of their unctuous supply chain management were irrelevant. "Inspections in these factories are often pre - announced to give factory owners chance to prepare," she said. "So a box ticking approach will always fail to identify health and safety concerns in any meaningful way. For example, on a day an audit is due the stairwells and fire escapes will not be locked."
Eyewitness accounts from a recent disaster suggest one of the main gates was locked. In a fire at a Dhaka garment factory last year every fire escape was blocked by the 500,000-piece inventory of cut-price jeans destined for Europe.
It is too late to do anything for the people killed recently while making fashion for the rapacious global market. Whether anything can be done to rescue their families from poverty and starvation with the main breadwinner gone in nations so corrupt that foreign aid disappears into the same black hole as the profits of fair trade organisations is doubtful. Spokespeople for the western fashion chains whose stores sell the products of the third world sweat shops will say the company is "terribly saddened" by the tragedy but do nothing knowing anything they do will be pointless. In Bangladesh, a tiny country with a smaller land area (55,000 sq miles) than England, (not the UK but England) and a population of 165 million (the whole UK has 60 million and we're crowded), human lives are cheap. In terms of labour relations they are about where we were 150 years ago.
This year is the centenary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster in New York. In that incident 146 young female garment workers were killed. It remains one of the city's biggest industrial disasters and marked the birth of the labour rights movement in the USA. The victims are commemorated in a museum and many books. But in Bangladesh there are so many people and so many garment factory fires they barely register on the public consciousness.
We cannot save every victim of injustice in the Third World, there are too many, governments do not care and thanks to the weakness of certain limp wristed leaders the influence of western nations have never been lower. But we can try as far as is possible to buy local, to repatriate the jobs and industries the the craze for globalisation saw exported to low labour cost nations. We can make clothes and consumer goods last (thus being earth friendly as well), demand quality and give the corporations the message that we will not dance to their tune any more. And we can get used to paying realistic prices for food, clothing and gadgets.
Or all of us, and that includes the bleeding heart liberals because they more than anybody are the sheeple who think and do what the marketing message tells them to think and do, can carry on living their good life on the sweat of slaves in nations of the dark skinned races.
Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.
Human cost of cheap clothing
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