High Street shops engage in numerous unethical practices – but should we care?
To say that as a consumer you should have absolutely no cares for whether or not the people making your clothes have had good working conditions and a fair wage is to say that you should entirely ignore one of the most important tenants of humanity: altruism.
Most people with half a heart can see that trade unions and workers’ rights are a fairly good thing, hence why in this country they are very firmly enshrined in law and there is minimal (though alas still some) political support for reversing such measures. There seems to be no real difference in how important workers’ rights are whether they’re in the UK or on the other end of the earth, people are people and ought to be respected as such.
Also, to make absolutely clear, sweatshops do not merely slightly infringe on a person’s right to enjoy appropriate working hours. Sweatshops refer to places where people work horrendous hours, in often dangerous and dirty conditions, for minimal pay (far below any living wage) with no steady employment or job security. There is no maternity leave, sick pay, flexible working hours. No pensions, no health insurance, nothing except an absolute pittance of a wage.
There are also less holy reasons why having workers’ rights enshrined in international law would be overwhelmingly positive. The relatively expensive British worker would be comparatively less expensive to employ, so it could well lead to more employment of British workers in sectors like clothes manufacturing that have declined in the past decades. In terms of perceptions of the exploitative developed Western nations this would also decline, as there would not be this exploitation occurring, or at the very least there would be less exploitation. Whilst it would be naïve to say that this would change perceptions of the West entirely, it could certainly help us seem more human and less like we employ double standards – one set of rights for our people, and another for yours.
I’m not going to argue sweatshops aren’t bad; obviously, they are. They are exploitative, unjust, and it’s disgusting that such an industry is supported by our desire for disposable fashion in the Western world.
The truth is that these sweatshops are creating some, however unethical, form of employment. While they can’t claim to be lifting these people out of abject poverty, they are in some small way making the lives of the sweatshop workers slightly better, at least in some way. A minuscule income is better than no income, surely? The argument that pressure on these companies will force them to improve working conditions for their employees doesn’t really hold either. Evidence shows that pressure on these companies does not make them become more ethical, it only makes them relocate. Sadly, there are plenty of places in the world which have no employment opportunities, and multinational companies are very aware of this. It doesn’t matter to multinational corporations whether they exploit people in India, China, Somalia or wherever, so long as they can keep their labour costs low.
If you don’t agree with the above argument, think about how much difference you can actually make. The cheap fashion industry is worth billions of pounds in the Western world, and your contribution to it is negligible. Primark, Topshop and Nike don’t really care if they lose your business, you are just one of their millions of customers. Even if a movement started with larger numbers of people boycotting the companies, there would never be high enough numbers of protesters to really make a difference. The West’s appetite for cheap fashion is as insatiable as companies’ hunger for profits, whatever the ethical cost.
Some of you may wonder why, if I truly believe in what I’m saying here, I’ve decided to remain anonymous. It’s because while I think I’m being completely rational, I feel many people are misguided by their emotions. People need to look at this issue and consider it in the context of how the world actually works, not homogenise it into an image of an abused child. The issue of sweatshops needs to be tackled, but by bigger forces than the individual. Sadly, you deciding to buy ethically is just not going to make a difference to anybody.