Bullying? Bangladesh under pressure

If you read this story you’ll understand about power. I’ll give you a brief summary: A group of major buyers from high street brands such as M&S, Hennes, Walmart, Tesco and Nike met with the head of the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers Association and pushed for Bangladesh to reduce the prices they’re offering to exporters.

The brands used the excuse that other countries such as India, Pakistan, China and Vietnam were all lowering prices and strongly suggested that Bangladesh do the same.

My question reading this was, what choice do Bangladeshi garment companies have? I’m constantly shocked at how trade negotiations aren’t actually negotiations. As the deficit is passed down the supply chain, price drops and the economic crisis inevitably end up hitting the workers at the bottom hardest, and they’re the people who can’t afford the loss.

The reality is that as people stop shopping and recession spending hits home, companies have got spooked and are grouping together to demand lower prices from countries who are already being driven to produce at very cheap rates. Playground bullying? – yes even in the big world.

The president of the Bangladeshi exporters association noted that trade with Europe and the States had shrunk by 10 % in January, and was worried. As that trade makes up 90% of the industry, this is bad news for workers who will face job cuts in the coming months. Not to mention the industry reverting to temporary contracts to cope with a fluctuating climate, or factories accepting large orders that they can’t really cope with because it sounds like good money.

Who is the ethical consumer?

At LBL you might be detect an audible sigh when a consumer asks “where can I get ethical clothes?” or a journalist “do Gap produce in unethical conditions?”

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical fashion’ has come to mean “an approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing, which is both socially and environmentally sustainable” (Ethical Fashion Forum). But it signifies more than that: it is a fashion trend in its own right, a segment of the market, like petite or smart-casual or goth.

‘Ethical’ in the sense of ‘ethical trade’, means that companies, “take agreed steps to ensure their supplier companies respect the rights of their workers by adhering to national labour laws and the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO)” (Ethical Trading Initiative). Read the rest of this entry »

MSN Statement on Discovery of Child Labour in Gap Subcontract Factory

MSN Statement on Discovery of Child Labour in Gap Subcontract Factory

November 2, 2007

On October 28, a UK paper, the Observer, published an exposé on child labour in India, revealing that clothes bearing the GapKids label were being made by children as young as 10 years old. The bonded labourers were reportedly working 16 hours a day for no pay in filthy working conditions.

Read the rest of this entry »

What the Gap child labour story really means

Gap has been the target of anti-sweatshop campaigners for about a decade now, so there’s a sense in which today’s Observer story, which finds ‘slave’ child labour in subcontractors producing for Gap, is merely retracing a familiar pattern. Indeed, it’s not the first story of poor working conditions in India this year, and it’s one of a string of recent exposés.

What does make it interesting is that in recent years Gap has been steadily building a reputation as one of the most progressive companies when it comes to labour rights, as the Observer notes. This comes despite the apparently irreparable damage done by bad press in the late 1990s, which still sees many good-natured but ill-informed souls boycotting Gap. (I am wearing Gap trousers as I write this, more because they fit me well than for any ethical reason…)

Gap’s groundbreaking ‘warts and all’ social responsibility reporting has won it plaudits where its competitors continue to deny the full scale of the problems in their supply chains; its response to our own Let’s Clean up Fashion investigation was one of the better ones we received; it has some progressive collaborative work with the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation and with Women Working Worldwide.

So what does this teach us?

First, it demonstrates once again that no company is doing enough to address the deep-rooted exploitation on which it relies to produce fashion at high-street prices.

Second, because poor working conditions exist in all companies’ supply chains, it is not how often a company is linked to them in the press that tells us whether it is ‘ethical’, but how ambitiously it is working to address them.

Third, it shows that, while consumer pressure has done an awful lot to push certain retailers towards a more progressive outlook, there is much for us all still to do.

There is no black and white list of bad and good companies, only shades of (pretty dark) grey.