Startlingly cheap consumer goods like clothes, furniture and electronics all rely on one thing: slavery.
I am not trying to use an emotive turn of phrase to persuade you that there’s a real issue here. Our economy is fundamentally underpinned by real and traumatic slavery. Our discount stores. Our clothing. Even our school uniforms. Slavery here in Australia, or slavery overseas, the only way we can sustain incredibly cheap prices is by paying the people who make this stuff a pittance, treating them inhumanely, not spending money on fripperies like safe working environments, sick leave, or healthcare, and funnelling the profits off to those family friendly companies we rely on for our way of life – KMart, Bunnings, Target, Big W… those companies with pictures of happy smiley white children on all their catalogues.
Then every so often the media does a big exposé on factories that supply Apple, or KMart, or Nike. The company is, naturally, just horrified to learn of the appalling conditions its workers face. So it vows to clean up its act, and scuttles off into a new factory no-one has bothered to audit yet. Safe until the next exposé. Happily preserving ludicrously low manufacturing costs, and not having to actually fork out any of their profit margins for anything so unprofitable as healthcare.
Meanwhile the workers at the original factory are saved, right?
Um… No. At this point the original factory, unless it can scrounge up another unscrupulous partner in crime, will close down. Those workers who roused the world to outraged indignation on their behalf? They are now unemployed and sunk deeper into the mire of inescapable poverty. They are unlikely to find work elsewhere. We might as well have signed their death warrants.
Bangladesh has now been exposed as a country chock full of sub-standard slave pits masquerading as factories. And KMart, Target and others are planning to step up, take responsibility, and ensure that a portion of their profit makes those factories safe, and provides decent working conditions, right?
Um… No. They will wring their hands, profess their undying horror at all these things they never knew, honest, and quietly move their manufacturing elsewhere, hoping no-one looks too closely at their new factories.
After all, no-one wants to pay a few dollars more for a t-shirt so that some poor stranger halfway across the world has access to healthcare, education and a decent standard of living, do they? If we weren’t exploiting them someone else would be, and we have to keep our prices down or people won’t buy our stuff. We are doing them a favour, in the end, paying them $60 a month to work 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, in factories that could collapse on them any second. If we didn’t, they’d have nothing.
Which is exactly what they will have when KMart and their friends wash their pure white hands of them and move on to less visible slavery elsewhere.
So next time you sign a petition demanding that these stores source their clothing ethically, think about adding a comment. Demand that they create ethical conditions where they are right now. Demand that they take responsibility for the entire clothing chain, and build an expectation of decent conditions around the globe, not just where the camera is currently pointing.
For more information, check out Oxfam’s reports on ethical clothing.