Many are disgusted by the condition in which people of all ages are forced to work in in the ‘sweatshop’ trade, but with our desire to have the next ‘must have’ piece at a price that we can afford, someone along the line has had to suffer as a result.
These pressures put on Western retailers to produce those in-demand products cheaply and efficiently have effectively led to sweatshops. But just how much pressure are these high street stores under? Is there a way for them to please both their workers and their buyers?
You cannot blame consumers for wanting the newest on-trend, yet affordable, clothes and good prices on the high street will of course affect our choices as to where and who we buy from. But as students carry their crazily cheap bargains home to halls, what does it cost the labouring communities that clothe them? To bring those bargains down to student budgets, many factories in the UK have been moved abroad in recent years (a process called off-shoring) where labour and overheads are costing retailers considerably less cash.
However it was this transition that gave birth to the name ‘sweatshop’. This brand of factory condition was born when unethical practice began taking place in the foreign work environment. Although in some cases, it gives those in poorer communities an opportunity to learn and earn, just how big of an opportunity is it? Is it even worth the work? According to research by the poverty fighting organisation War on Want, workers serving retailers including Primark, Tesco and Asda receive a poor pay cheque as little as £19.16 a month, well under half of a living wage.
Factories in Bangladesh evidently show little consideration for the well-being of workers and a similar situation is currently taking place further east. China has one of the largest manufacturing economies worldwide, where thousands migrate to the cities in search of factory work to provide for families at home. However, what they may not realise is that they leave their loved ones for poor pay, long hours and aggressive treatment from factory management.
But do students consider such conditions when purchasing from various stores? Student Angela Wooley responds:
‘I do think about it, but not when I’m shopping, more at random times, usually when I clock a “made in China” label or something. I talk to my children about child labour and how kids their age are exploited (my eldest, 12, is obsessed with shopping), I like her to be aware that the world isn’t fair.’
Or is it more about our budget as students? First year Rachel Tatton gives her opinion:
‘Cheaper is better yes, but if there was more information available about how certain clothes were made from certain shops it would definitely make me think twice before buying it!’
For students, perhaps the problem lies in the issues of not being informed. With shop windows displaying their biggest bargains for us, do we forget about what goes on behind closed doors?
As terrible as this may sound in comparison to the jobs we may have, these workers children and their children’s children are likely to do the same for future generations as it is their only opportunity to provide. In developing countries, approximately 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are forced to work. This vicious cycle of poverty may well continue along with neglecting the minimum wage law and suppression of workers rights. With unions banned in places such as China, will the labourer’s voice ever be heard?
Sweatshop shame and child labour laws have been very frequent in the headlines over the years, which just goes to show what little is being done to improve the work ethic internationally. Some of us may refuse to shop in the cramped chaos that is Primark due to the treatment of their workers but what good does it do? If this vicious poverty cycle remains the labour force will either have payment next to nothing, or nothing.
Law student, Emily Karpinski, gives her perspective on child exploitation:
‘Yeah I do think about the conditions those children have to work in and its awful that the companies exploit them so much for profit but sometimes the children have no alternatives and if the country stopped buying the clothes they’d be in an even worse position.’
The poverty cycle exists as a result of the consumer cycle. But without the consumer cycle would our favourite high street stores even exist? Studies have shown that by doubling the salaries of these workers it would result in a small 1.8% increase in the price of goods. With consumers wiling to pay 15% more knowing products did not derive from such conditions, some of us subject the shops to their stereotype – profit is the only concern above the consumer.
English student, Jade Unwin, gives her response to these statistics:
‘That’s really sad, just goes to show that corporations really are lifeless machines. Companies could easily market on being free trade and get even more money from it, like Body Shop and Pret a Manger, they rub their morality in your face to the point where I feel guilty if I consider myself over-charged. So its hardly worth it to deprive people of reasonable wages for the sake of a measly profit.’