Sunday, May 19, 2013

The little red sewing machine

This isn't about boycotting Primark or shooting for the impossible;
it's about giving Bangladeshi workers hope and British shoppers help

This was first published on SubScribe on May 1, 2013

The death toll from the Bangladesh factory collapse last week has now passed 400. There is scant hope that anyone else will be rescued from the rubble. As the bodies have been buried, so victims' families, survivors and garment workers from other factories have taken to the streets of Dhaka not to weep and wail, but to assert their right to better treatment.

The people of Bangladesh are not supine starvelings begging for the world's pity. They want to work, to do so for a decent wage in decent conditions, and not to have their lives endangered by greedy and incompetent governments, employers or customers. It isn't a lot to ask.

It seems, however, that it is a lot to give. There have been hastily arranged meetings between government officials, employers' organisations and importers; handouts from chastened Western retailers; mass protests in Dhaka and mini protests outside Primark. Ethical trading organisations have issued statements pointing out that they've been working to improve matters forever and assuring the world that they are doing their best. And the overwhelming impression from this scurry of activity -  so far - has been of the world wringing its hands and sighing: We'd love to do more, but it's soooo complicated...'

By far the most outspoken public figure yet has been the Pope, who pulled no punches today:

"A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy was 'Living on €38 a month'. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world, this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us - the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation? Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God.” 

SubScribe pitched its tuppence into the muddy fountain last week with the suggestion that retailers should take a  pro-active role in monitoring the conditions under which their merchandise is manufactured and that goods coming from factories that are properly run should be entitled to attach a little red sewing machine symbol to their labels.

The idea was not intended as a solution to all the problems of sweatshops all over the world. It was meant as a device to inform shoppers as they riffle through the racks. The idea was born from the disclosure that not only Primark and Matalan bought from the three factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan that have killed nearly a thousand workers in the past six months. Gap, Monsoon, Benetton were also among the brands that have been sourcing clothes from the death-plants.

Common sense might tell people that if they buy a T-shirt for a quid or two, it probably hasn't been made in a beautifully lit open-plan building with water coolers and potted palms. But if you pay £30 or £90 for your new shirt or dress, it might be reasonable to assume that it wasn't thrown together in a sweatshop.

And so the little red sewing machine was devised not as a means of punishing Primark, but as a reward for those shops that went out of their way to make sure that they did not profit from others' suffering.

The suggestion aroused much interest - "Great idea!" "Is there a campaign?" "How can we make this work?" and the most gratifying demand from the fashionista Luella Bartley "Little red sewing machine!!!! Now!!!"

The enthusiasm was balanced by scepticism from experts who politely pointed out that there were already labelling systems, that there were inspection regimes, that retailers had already signed up to International Labour Organisation and Ethical Trading Initiative standards. But those systems, those conventions aren't doing the job are they? The workers are still being exploited - and so are the shoppers.

Fairtrade (well actually Traidcraft for clothes) seems to be the only brand where we can be absolutely sure that the vendor has proper contact with the producer - and that is hardly mainstream High Street fashion.

We can trawl through the ethical websites in the hope of learning whether it's OK to buy this label or that, but even these aren't particularly helpful. For example, in 2011 the Labour Behind the Label organisation ran a Let's Clean Up Fashion campaign aimed at making sure workers were receiving a living wage. It graded those companies that responded to its investigation on a five-point scale. Some big names came out with 0, including SuperDry, Reiss, Republic and Paul Smith. The LBL verdict on these read:
"This company did not respond to our request for information, and makes no information available on its website. It is therefore safe to assume the worst - that it has no engagement with ethical trading at all."

The first sentence is factual, the second preposterous. It is safe to assume the worst because a company declines to engage with a lobby group? Surely 'Consumers may draw their own conclusions' would have been fairer?

The claim that there are so many regimes that it would be impossible to pull them together is, I think, exactly the wrong argument to use against the little red sewing machine. Because the inspiration for the idea was the Assured Food Standards tractor. And that was created precisely because there were so many labels and inspection regimes in the food industry that it was felt that someone needed to drive - well - a tractor through to clear the path for the consumer. As it explains on its website:

"Assured Food Standards was established in the spring of 2000, and the Red Tractor was launched in the summer of the same year. At that time the public were faced with a plethora of food standards and labels. AFS and the Red Tractor mark were set up to help harmonise the approach to standard setting and inspection throughout the supply chain and to give the public a mark of quality, safe, affordable food that they could recognise and trust....

We all want to know that the food we are buying is safe and this only comes from knowing where the raw ingredients come from and the standards to which they are produced, which is why all suppliers in the Red Tractor food chain are inspected and certified by an independent professional body."

Naturally it is easier to monitor UK farm production than to check up on factories thousands of miles away, but it should not be beyond the wit of mankind to pull this off. AFS is not a fat quango, but a small organisation set up by farmers, growers and retailers. Associated British Foods, the owners of Primark, claims to have extensive systems in place to make sure that its food products are of top quality. It should be able to do the same for its clothing.

Primark said this week that it carried out annual inspections of its supplier's second-floor factory in the Rana Plaza building, but did not check on the building itself. So its inspection system was so thorough that it was unaware that the owners had permission to build a five-storey building but had bunged another three on top, almost doubling the stress on the foundations and structure?

Attacking Primark is not the answer.
Photograph: War on Want

Boycotting Primark or dresses made in Bangladesh will do no-one any good. When a business is put under financial stress, it is always the workers who pay the price - thousands and thousands in Asia have lost their jobs since the financial crisis in the West reduced demand in the shops and thence for clothes from Bangladesh. 

The pressure needs to be applied on Dhaka, whose successive government policies created the  sweatshop garment industry that accounts for 80 per cent of its exports. The industry has been encouraged to expand in special Export Processing Zones (make our enterprise areas sound positively attractive) to which foreign business are welcomed and  from which trade unions are banned. 

Workers must be allowed to have their voice and the West's retailing giants - the Wal-Marts, the Loblaws, the ABFs, and the Sir Philip Greens - should make sure they have it. The Bangladeshis are perfectly capable of fighting their own battles if they are allowed to elect representatives to put their case in a proper forum without having to resort to the desperation of unrest and even violence.

The big prize requires patience, negotiations and understanding at high levels. It will not be reached quickly. The smaller prize - the little red sewing machine - is more attainable because all it needs is for a group of like-minded industry experts to get together and to set up their own set of standards and their own inspection system. They don't need to look at every factory in the world, just those that supply retailers who want their ethical bona fides recognised.

No shop or chain would be obliged to join in; if Matalan or J.C. Penney or Saks, Fifth Avenue  do not want to  commit to making their own checks on their producers, that is their prerogative. But they might find that shoppers do look out for the symbol that reassures them they aren't unwittingly perpetuating slave labour. And that may encourage more retailers to join the club. We can only hope. 

If you would like to support this idea, please speak up. One way is to tweet, using the hashtag #littleredsewingmachine. And we might just make a difference.

Recommended reading

Ethical websites

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please do leave your thoughts on this post. Thank you.