The brutal business of sweatshops

Despite allowing terrible conditions and minescule wages, sweatshops remain prevalent all over the world. Charlotte Collins examines the business realities, how retail moguls avoid responsibility and what we can do to help.

Despite allowing terrible conditions and minescule wages, sweatshops remain prevalent all over the world. Charlotte Collins examines the business realities, how retail moguls avoid responsibility and what we can do to help.

The thirst for fashion, with its unfaltering flux and change is at the forefront of high street shopping, so it is no wonder that today’s sought after ‘It’ bag will, in the blink of an eye, become yesterdays news. Last year the British and Irish spent over 700m euros on cosmetics alone.

It seems we are hell bent on having it all. But in this mad rush of seemingly insatiable desire we, as consumers, might want to take a moment to think about how these sought after products are manufactured and at what cost?

Behind the glossy windows of upmarket department stores and beyond their rails of alluring prints and fancy fabrics is an undesirable reality: the sweatshop.

The name can be understood quite literally in the sense of productivity and output being “sweated” out of those who work inside a factory’s four walls. Considered in the context of the garment industry’s hierarchy, these workers are at the bottom, seated in the shadows.

At the top, in the bright light of day, the major retailers convene, making vast profits. Life at the top is played out amongst the hustle and bustle of a prosperous working environment. Topshop boss Sir Philip Green and entrepreneur Mohammed Al Fayed, owner of upmarket brands Harrods and House of Fraser, epitomise this enormous success and reap the financial rewards that can be made in this industry.

“Fierce competition for jobs puts most contractors in a position to dictate terms to their employees. Workers accept whatever low wage is offered.”

Below these impresarios are the manufacturers who sell and distribute finished product to the likes of Green and Al Fayed. It is down to them to hire the sewing contractors and sub-contractors. These contactors are responsible for overseeing the garment workers who sew together parts of garment cut from textiles. The uncensored reality of these workhouses, which are located literally all over the globe, is shocking, to say the least.

Despite the prevailing ideological trends of the last few years, which consistently emphasise the moral values of “Fair Trade” and “Green living”, sweatshops still continue. They underpin the profits of huge brands such as Nike, Gap and Primark, all of whom have faced high profile court cases over the last few years.

In order to understand the continued prevalence of sweatshops, and the role they play both in our lives and in our economies we must examine the process by which clothes are made and then sold on to us as consumers. We must examine how responsibility is dodged at every level.

As justification, the retailers at Gap would perhaps claim that, whilst they are responsible for finding worthy manufacturers, beyond that point, their remit ends, as the manufacturers are responsible for finding their own contractors.

It is at the level of the contractor that we see the worst abuses of workers. It is the contractors who recruit, hire, and pay the garment workers. Fierce competition for jobs puts most contractors, or factories, in a position to dictate terms to their employees. This “take it or leave it” attitude means that workers must accept whatever low price the manager is offering, or see the work contract awarded to another factory.

Contract prices are often driven down to a level that makes it impossible for factories to pay legal wages or comply with safety laws, and it is in this context that those at the top deny responsibility for those workers at the bottom and for the conditions in which they carry out their arduous twelve-hour days.

There seems to be no corporate responsibility. Instead there is what could charitably be described as a complete ignorance of sweatshop conditions, but, more plausibly, the “big dogs” are turning a blind eye to the problem.

The hierarchy is vast and unforgiving and relations very quickly grow cold between the differing levels of manufacturing.
What then, if anything, can we do to change the lives of these garment workers? Surely it is impossible to claim that one individual taking a stand against unethical consumerism can change anything at all? It would seem likely that one Fairtrade purchase made in Topshop does little to alter the daily realities of life as a sweatshop labourer.

Annie Kelly however, author of an article entitled “The Rise of the Ethical Woman”, would ardently argue to the contrary. She emphasises the positive influence a woman can have on financial turnaround of the clothing industry. She remarks that, “ethical purchasing, it seems, does make a difference. Boycotts cost big brands £2.6bn a year, according to the Co-operative Bank’s ethical purchasing index. Consumption of Fairtrade food has doubled in the past three years, and the British now drink 1.7 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, tea and cocoa every day. More than 130 brands now carry the Fairtrade mark, indicating that manufacturers recognise the kudos of having an ethical stamp on their products.”
According to Kelly, the conscious decisions we make to shop ethically and fairly, however small and seemingly insignificant, have wider repercussions within the industry. After all, the market is dictated by consumers.

Surely then, with statistics backing this very view, one can make an informed decision that their dismissal of unethical goods, whether they be food, coffee, clothes, or shoes will add weight to the growing wave of consumer morality.

Whilst we may not be able, single handedly, to eradicate the sweatshops still teeming with workers who have no choice but to slave away in terrible conditions, we can make a conscious decision to take small steps towards a fairer future. So when we see those glorious-looking black snakeskin sandals calling out to us from behind frosted glass, we should wonder from whose hands they were born.