Lately I have been thinking about how essential cheap labour is to the fundamentals of our current model of capitalism. In the current economical climate, we are forever being told that the economy is retracting due to consumers spending less.
From a (fashion) retail perspective, the fact that people are not only buying less but that they are also not buying in the same frequency as before, has caused some of the big UK high street brands to go into administration. Poor sales performance is creating much uncertainty within the industry; even Tesco's, the UK's largest supermarket who are said to be pocketing £1 in every £7 spent in Britain, have announced a slump in profits.
Though I'm aware there are other contributing factors that affect the economy such as inflation, unemployment, wages, etc, the underlining message is that the more we consume the bigger and better the economy will be. The perfect example of this was back in 2008 when the VAT was lowered to 15% for a limited time, this was an attempt to get people sending again on predominately higher priced products such as cars, furniture and electrical items since these were where the savings would be more apparent.
Some people may not see this approach to achieving a stable economy as blackmail, yet this (not so subtle) indoctrinate is what has conditioned us to over consume.
Think about Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day, these were once days for reflection and dedicated to spending time with loved ones, instead these and the rest of the national holidays have become incentives to spend money and if not on yourself then on others.
This insatiable consumption habit has put us in a compromising situation, much like a drug user regularly needs a fix, the emotional sensation the act of consuming gives us makes us ignorant to the conditions our products are produced.
I’m no stranger to over consuming, thought the difference between me and the average consumer is that I am more conscious of the conditions many modern good are produced under and this affects what brands I buy.
We have all heard of the horrid conditions farm animals are kept in to produce our meat and dairy products, like we’ve heard that the fashion retailers use child labour; yet this has not stopped caged hen eggs being sold or put Primark out of business. Because when it comes down to it this reality doesn’t happen near enough to us nor do the people seem real enough to us to affect our consumption habits!
This desensitised attitude or ignorance isn’t new; in fact the most significant historical example of this practice was over 500 years ago when Europe’s relationship with Africa changed dramatically.
The very basis of slavery was the use of cheap labour to produce what are still Western staples - cotton, sugar, rice, coffee, tobacco.
Back then racism was used to justify Europe’s actions, it also made consumers oblivious to the fact that the slaves in the Caribbean and America were abused and treated like animals. This made the use of exploited labour invaluable since the practise not only satisfied European demands but it also radically boosted Europe’s economy.
Fast forward to present day and we still see evidence of native and diaspora Africans exploited for cheap labour and continent resources knowing under sold. This is not exclusively an African problem; South America and Asian are also exploited heavily by the West.
Asia has become the world’s largest exporter and produces much of the products we regularly consume, from our mobile phones to fashion to the food we eat. Yet Asian workers are subjected to very poor (and often dangerous) working conditions, long working hours and extremely low pay.
Using the fashion industry as an example of what is a general practice in almost any industry, the book 'To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing the World Out?' by Lucy Siegle explains that it is the people who are the most vulnerable who are exploited, since they are easy to intimidate (usual suspects are children, women and immigrants).
In the book Siegle describes the harrowing working conditions, saying that workers would have their “documents and permits taken from them, being denied access to a foetid toilet until their bladders are about to burst, being sexually assaulted”, it is also a common practice in these countries to lock workers “into factories at night that are swept by fires from an electric fault, and burned alive.”
What I find most interesting about garment manufacturing is that 20-30 years ago, this was a domestic practice and England had a thriving industry in garment making. What changed was that over head costs and minimum wage in the UK increased, causing almost all of the UK’s garment production to move abroad.
Production and labour outside of the EU can be found cheaply, purely because many of the countries sourced do not have a minimum wage law or health & safety rules and regulations.
This idea of using and abusing cheap labour isn't resigned just to 3rd world countries, the practice can also be found here in the UK.
In 2010 Channel 4's Dispatches, exposed clothing factories in Leicester running sweetshops, many of the clothing shown on the program were produced for High Street chains New Look, TopShop and Peacocks.
Leicester houses a large Asian community and the factories shown on the programme were using illegal Asian immigrants which they paid far less then the UK's minimum wage, also they paid them irregularly and in some cases not at all! The very fact that these people were illegally staying in the country makes them extremely vulnerable and extremely desirable for exploiting for cheap labour.
It’s fair to say that many large businesses whose sole aim is to make a profit and satisfy its shareholders, will be open (if not already doing so) to exploiting others for personal gain.
Take the supermarket chains as an example, there has been loads written about supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s underpaying farmers so that they can make large profits for themselves.
Another example of how strong the demand for cheap labour is in our capitalist society is a remark made recently by Tory MP Philip Davies, he encourages the idea of disabled people being paid under the minimum wage. This he believes is necessary since a disabled person (either physically or mentally) is not fully competent nor as productive compared to an able body worker, so by lowering the minimum wage for these people it will make them more desirable to employers (looking for cheap labour)!
As consumers it seems we are caught in a vicious circle of supply and demand, I say supply before demand since its clear there has been a shift in cultural attitudes making us more emotionally dependent on materialistic values. I believe this shift had been manoeuvred by those at the top of the supply chain, since this new consumption behaviour benefits them the most.
Though we are not completely powerless, in fact we as consumer are in the most powerful position. The very act of consuming just a little more wisely and selectively would send a very powerful message to retailers who benefit greatly from consumer ignorance.
I am aware this is easier in theory than in practice especially for those on a lower income that may not be able to afford to spend more on everyday products just to keep their conscience clear.
Demanding a product that offers quality, sustainability and good ethics will raise prices, since we would expect those making our products to receive a better wage and improved working conditions. It’s also expected that many retailers will not want to compromise their profit margins so much of the additional cost will be past onto the customer!
This is the problem with our current model of capitalism, it's founding principles are narcissist, i.e.: the drive to make a profit in spite of the environmental or human costs. This makes progress a particularly slow process, since change is only made when consumers demand it.
Within the last 20 years or so there has been much media interest into the conditions our goods are produced, with news stories exposing the conditions of clothing manufacturing to TV programmes on battery hens. This has helped raise consumer’s awareness though not enough of us are changing our consumption habits to truly make a big difference.
It is becoming more and more favourable in many industries to use progressive business strategies which consider ethics and sustainability.
For the fashion industry this translates to using organic cotton, supporting the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) or launching clothing ranges with the incentive of funding causes and charities. But since demand for a sustainable, ethical and quality product is low, retailers often promote these products as premium with premium price tags!
It is worrying that 500 years since the west’s campaign of exploitation and cheap labour began; we have made very slow progress to eradicate this practise.
What is needed to make any real progress is a mass shift in consumption habits and attitudes, though with our government as well as retailers encouraging us to over consume this seems unlikely to happen soon.
Be reminded that the power to exert change is in all of our hands, consume wise.
- Tory MP Philip Davies Says Disabled Should Offer To Work Below Minimum Wage, Metro
- Tesco Sales Slide Consumers Cut Back?, The Guardian
- Supermarket Sweep, The Guardian
- Gordon Brown to cut Vat as winter recession bites, The Times Online
- Primark linked to UK sweatshops, BBC
- Cambodian Garment Workers Injured Clash Riot Police Gap & Adidas Factory, Daily Mail
- Dispatches: Fashion's Dirty Secret, 8th November 2010
- To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing The World Out, Lucy Seigle