Exploited Labour On The High Street

March 28, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

In Mauritius this morning, a boy wakes up at 6am. He makes his way to the factory. He works 14 hours a day for 22p an hour.

Nobody in the factory knows the time. There is no natural light. Even if someone knew, they could not tell him. They must work in silence. Dust fills the air. The sound of young children coughing bounces off the grey walls. Ahmar coughs too. The wheels don’t stop, and neither does he. The large grey cage is filled with sweat as they bruise and grunt. Men, women and children are kept in here – but it is mainly children. They take up less space.

The ringing bell and flickering florescent lights signal the day’s end. Luckily, he has no work tonight. Joining the procession of sliding feet, he gets to his dormitory at 11pm. He prepares to do the same thing tomorrow.

At the same time, but in another place, a young girl undividedly admires a sweater in a glossy high street shop window. She must have it. She needs it. She walks purposefully to the rack and picks out her size. It fits perfectly. The delicate cotton feels soft and cuddly. It will keep her warm this winter (when she feels like wearing it instead of her other jumpers). Without a doubt in her mind, she buys it.

The lives of these two children are the product of mass consumerism. This illustration is just a snippet of the gross inequality existing throughout the world. People work in appalling conditions for such little pay that it is akin to slavery, while others have their desires transformed into needs with the help of spin doctors driven by the excess supply that sweatshops continuously produce.

One would be forgiven for believing that the mass use of sweatshops was a thing of the past. Images of Western industrial towns filled with black smog come to mind. How could such appalling human conditions be systematically allowed to continue in the 21st century? Weren’t most of them all closed down amid years of political and social pressure?

Yes they were. Well, in the West anyway. Industrial working conditions have improved dramatically over the decades. Black smog no longer fills our lungs. This is not to say the ills of class inequality do not remain a plague on the social conscience. And of course, there are still small-scale sweatshops crammed into household garages filled with desperate immigrants, tricked into virtual slavery by a promised visa.

But, as usual, the developing world is forgotten. Sweatshops litter developing cities and fields. In October last year, The Sunday Times and BBC 2 revealed that children in developing countries were forced to pick cotton for clothes on UK high streets.

Horrifically, this is still happening. Children in Uzbekistan are transported like cattle into large buses to cotton fields. The cramped conditions are made even more unbearable as the children share the space and light with mattresses – their bedding once they get to the fields. Clothing ‘super’ brands, such as Topshop, eagerly show off their products – the fruits of this sweatshop labour – at Uzbekistani industrial fairs.

In a sweatshop in Mauritius, workers are forced to work 70 hours a week for 22p a day. They are paid 40% less than the average local wage. The workers sleep on site, with up to 50 humans indiscriminately shoved into one dormitory. Filthy toilets are rationed to 10 for every 900 workers. Workers rarely complain for fear not only of dismissal, but of deportation. Many come from war-torn countries or places were they fear persecution, torture and death.

The Arcadia group, which includes Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, are one of the biggest perpetrators of such systemic human rights abuses in factories in the developing world. In response, billionaire CEO, Philip Green says: “Our companies buy garments and do not usually have visibility of the source of the raw materials. We rely on our suppliers to source all raw materials and to operate according to our detailed Code of Conduct which includes the statement that ‘child labour must not be used’.”

How weak. To pass the responsibility onto their suppliers does not excuse Arcadia from blame. They are the corporate power here. Their profits gained from their products are a direct result of sweatshop labour. How can they deny accountability? Arcadia’s continued refusal to sign up to the most basic of labour and trading norms, the Ethical Trading Initiative, illustrates their willing avoidance of labour rights and standards. Unregulated individual Codes of Conduct are subjective to each corporation’s needs, and therefore completely ineffective. Workers’ dignity as human beings can only be protected by universal norms.

On 1st March, students from all around the UK protested in front of Topshop stores. At Topshop’s flagship store on Oxford Street, protestors donned bin liners and collectively carried a banner saying “we would rather wear rags than sweatshops clothes”. Similar protests were staged in Oxford, York and Preston.

Topshop continues to use the marketing slogan “We love students!” in a bid to entice young people into stocking up on merchandise born from sweatshop labour. It remains one of the most popular clothing brands in the UK, and with Arcadia as its powerful umbrella corporation, it is likely to continue milking profits for decades yet. There is no commercial reason for it to stop exploiting workers.

Developing countries, such as Uzbekistan and Mauritius remain at the whim of cash-flush and spendthrift Western consumers. What is needed is a widespread condemnation of Topshop, its brand and its unethical practices. Otherwise many more children will continue to suffer and be deprived of their childhood.

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This post was written by Vanessa Stevens

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