There’s Fairtrade, and then there’s fair trade. Fairtrade, as one word with a capital, is how we’ll describe the Fairtrade movement represented by the Fairtrade Foundation and the products it certifies. Fair trade, when we hit the space bar and go for two words, is how we’ll describe trade as it should be. It should be fair. It isn’t. Tariffs and subsidies and low wages aren’t fair. Sweatshops aren’t fair.
Definitions and examples
Sweatshops still exist. That’s the first thing. Labour Behind the Label exposes factories where workers are forced to work hellish hours and unpaid overtime, where trade union rights are crushed, where human rights are ignored, where wages are so lousy they’re barely worth bothering with. In sweatshops we have a modern descendant of slavery, humans kept and ruined because we like cheap shoes. That’s what we’re talking about right here.
Let’s take a few recent examples. In May 2011, ActionAid reported on the appalling conditions for workers in factories supplying Asda/George despite the company’s insistence that it was getting its shit together. They found 11-hour working days, workers paid a third of the living wage and suffering verbal and physical abuse. In 2010, BBC News reporter Alastair Lawson visited a pin factory in Bangladesh. He found child workers doing 12-hour shifts without lunch breaks, operating dangerous machinery in lousy conditions, paid about $2 a day.
There’s a hell of an example from a few years back. In 2004, the Clean Clothes Campaign reported the conclusion of a five-year lawsuit that saw fifty thousand workers on the island of Saipan sue American companies over their working conditions. The lawsuit, submitted to California’s Superior Court, stated they were “forced to toil under oppressive and unlawful “sweatshop” working conditions”, that they were “routinely underpaid and/or denied overtime premiums” and “permitted only a few hours off each day.” They alleged they had “limited access to water” and worked and lived “in unsanitary and overcrowded factories and barracks, some of which are ringed with barbed wire” and had “little freedom of movement or the ability to change employers or to return home.” Apologies for all the quotes there; I don’t want to paraphrase my way into my own lawsuit.
A handful of years after the case was filed, 26 American retailers settled the case for $20 million. Let’s name check them: Abercrombie & Fitch, Brooks Brothers, Brylane L.P, Calvin Klein, Cutter & Buck, Donna Karan International, Dress Barn, Gap, The Gymboree Corp, J.C. Penney Company, J. Crew Group, Jones Apparel Group, Lane Bryant, The Limited, Liz Claiborne, The May Department Stores Company, Nordstrom, Oshkosh B’Gosh, Phillips-Van Heusen, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sears Roebuck and Company Talbots, Target Corp, Tommy Hilfiger USA, Warnaco and Woolrich. Big, household names paying out for sweatshop labour.
This is recent and this is real, and these are just three examples.
Good corp/bad corp
The problem here is we all need clothes. Especially Lindsay Lohan. If that girl doesn’t get herself some drawers soon I’m going to go off vaginas altogether. The range of Fairtrade clothes is still pretty limited so we’re mostly having to go with the bad guys. But we’re not powerless here. We can find out which bad guys are the worst and which aren’t actually bad at all. Tools of the trade here include America’s Department of Labor and Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights, Britain’s Labour Behind the Label, and the international Clean Clothes Campaign, all of which name names to help us avoid the arseholes.
We know about Saipan’s 26. There are plenty more out there. Labour Behind the Label’s 2009 report, “Let’s Clean up Fashion”, researches and ranks retailers according to how they treat their workers and scrutinise their supply chains. Here we have non-responders (Alexon, BHS, Ethel Austin, House of Fraser and Peacock Group) and those who have done little to enforce a living wage (Asda/George, Clarks, Debenhams, French Connection, John Lewis, Laura Ashley, Levi Strauss, Matalan, River Island and Sainsbury’s). Here we have companies who have done bits and pieces to help things along: Arcadia, Aurora Fashions, Burberry and Tesco. And here we have companies that appear to be making a more genuine effort to pay living wages and improve conditions: Gap, Marks and Spencer, Monsoon Accessorize, New Look, Next and Primark. We can keep this in mind when hitting the high street, but before we stride through the doors of Primark with an unexpected surge of do-gooder pride let’s remember LBL’s warning that ”no brand or retailer is paying its workers a living wage or has yet put together a systematic programme of work that is likely to raise wages to acceptable levels in the near future.” What we’re talking about here are just helpful levels of crapness.
What we can do
We have name after name here, and in frustration we find ourselves considering naturism or turning a blind eye. Better than either of those, we can do something useful. We can buy Fairtrade clothes and shoes where possible and hope the success Fairtrade has enjoyed continues until these corporations take seriously the lives of their workers, the conditions of their factories and the idea that a life is worth more than a pair of jeans and the few quid they’ll make from it. And we can support the efforts of the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights, Labour Behind the Label and the Clean Clothes Campaign to expose sweatshops and the companies that use them. To do that we need to move beyond our trolleys…