Shackles of necessity and the rise of consumer indifference: Why the world allows sweatshops to continue

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Slavery is a virulent disease. To those blessed enough to be born in a prosperous Western nation, the word alone produces an emotive gag reflex, usually an angry torrent of criticism, anger, resentment, instant hatred; all underlined by a tone of intellectual superiority. I myself of course would agree with the common descriptions of slavery, both past and present; built on greed, ignorance, malice, domination, general evil and altogether the low point of civilisation.

However, I also cannot be the only person who is surprised by how many people, particularly those who so passionately denounce the vile history of the slave trade and current examples of slavery, are actually engaged in the slave trade. I am also one of these hypocrites. It appears that the imperial disease of slavery has been accompanied by an even worse disease, complete indifference to economic servitude and abhorrent disregard for rights violations and exploitation of the weak by the strong. This disease pervades our society and, albeit unwittingly in many cases, we are almost 24 hours a day surrounded and immersed in the products of slavery.

I am of course referring to the goods produced from sweatshops and labour factories around the world that continue to degrade, abuse, exploit and essentially enslave any number from a few dozen children to entire villages. It is common knowledge that the majority of shops sell a vast array of products produced in such a morally questionable manner. For instance, I would be hard pressed to find a food outlet that does not sell the Coca-Cola produced as a result of environmental damage, economic exploitation and a simple lack of care for fellow man. The still soaring profits of the Nike corporation are testament to how little people factor in their disgusting trade practice record when deciding what boots to wear to football practice or when buying any clothing. What is therefore still puzzling to me is how, with information on the companies employing child and forced labour, disregarding workers rights (e.g factory owners ignoring over-time regulations in China is commonplace) and causing severe environmental damage (BP springs to mind, along with countless others such as Glaxosmithkline and of course Coca-Cola), why does this continue? Have there not been drastic improvements in terms of legislation and corporate responsibility in recent years? Perhaps the statistics are not as common as I believe, in which case I’ll go through some of the most important.

The improvement in standards and a step up in inspections, as well as punishments for wrong-doers, is in itself misleading. Hannah Jones, Nike Inc.’s very own Vice President for Corporate Responsibility back in 2006 admitted to a Bloomberg reporter that “while monitoring is crucial to measuring the performance of our suppliers, it doesn’t per se lead to sustainable improvements”. In the same article, the story of Tang Yinghong is explored as he is able to simply pay off the problem of a looming Wal-Mart inspection which was sure to find his breach of wage and working hour legislation and lead to an end of trade. Such occurrences are all too commonplace and sickeningly most go unpunished.

General statistics are frankly frightening. A report published by The International Labour Organisation on the Fillipines shows the extent to which children are routinely employed in economic activity at a very young age. Of the estimated 24.9 million children 5-17 years old, about 4.0 million (16.2%) children were engaged in economic activity during the period October 2000 to September 2001. This proportion of working children was slightly higher by 0.2 percentage point compared to the reported 3.6 million working children in 1995. Of the total number of children working, 48.1% were of the 10-14 age group, with the 14-17 year olds being of a similarly high number. Such labour statistics are unsurprisingly mirrored by poor school attendance records and a disregard for workers rights. Of the 4.0 million working children 5-17 years old, 2.6 million (65.9%) attended school during the school year 2001-2002 while 1.3 million (31.3%) engaged in gainful and other activities but not in schooling. This translated to two school enrolees (who may have also been in employment) for every working child unable to attend school. When economic necessity, exacerbated by corporate and government policy, restricts access to education for a third of children, serious ethical questions have to be asked. Not only the moral code of the nation directly affected but also our misguided fetish for low priced clothing and electrical goods must be shown for what they truly are and discarded with shame and revolutionary enthusiasm. Only then can the blood stains that mark our most frequent of purchases be cleansed and for once a genuine change in world order can be allowed to flourish, as well as finally allowing the human race to substantiate any claims we have to superiority over animals.

The statistics quoted above are open to easy public access and deal with a wide range of nations in superb detail, acknowledging certain contexts in which labour of the young can be accepted and showing degrees of severity. However, as available as these studies are, little change has occurred. This is simply due to lack of human care for anything that does not directly affect our welfare. This is inescapable. The solution thus is to make the issue affect the lives of every general financier of the de facto slave trade that strips adults of dignity and children of childhood. How exactly to do this is difficult to say, as a barrage of information has proven ineffective. Perhaps a more forceful remedy is in order. I am not prescribing anything with arrogance or pretention, as to be quite honest I am not qualified to say. However, it has often been the case that the true horror of things are only recognised once they stop being to our direct benefit, and thus an economic solution is one possible answer, short of placing visual warnings on goods produced by exploitation similar to cigarette packets.

In any case, this article has appealed only for the recognition that we are all, as a collective, engaged in the slave trade and the systematic degradation, humiliation and subjugation of entire peoples, races, and (if we take note of corporate environmental policy) whole species. If we stop pointing the finger at others and expecting change to happen, maybe we will realise that each of us is the problem, and then maybe, just maybe, we might do the impossible and do what we loathe most; accept we are wrong and change for the good of another.

Article by Jack Cowell.
Edited by Matthew Byatt.

References

http://www.ilo.org/ipec/ChildlabourstatisticsSIMPOC/lang–en/

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_48/b4011001.htm