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The race to the bottom

Could Western corporations do without sweatshop production?

 Sweatshops are workplaces where the working conditions are extremely poor and health and safety laws are not enforced or are non-existent. News reports of fires which have killed dozens of people because fire doors were locked in sweatshop factories are not uncommon. Wages are very low, there may be bullying and intimidation, especially of anyone trying to improve conditions. Hours are long and the work itself may be very demanding and even dangerous. Sick workers cannot take time off and are penalised if they leave the factory. Sub-contractors for European, Japanese and American corporations refuse their staff breaks, monitoring the times they go to the toilet and harassing and humiliating staff. Profit comes before safety, before any quality of life the workers may have, before any idea of comfort.
 
 Developing countries are producing an increasing amount of the world’s manufacturing production. This is symptomatic of the new international division of labour, whereby Western countries close their factories at home, where wages rates are higher, and invest in factories in the ‘Third World’ as the labour costs are so much lower. Unfortunately for the ‘Third world’ workers, it was not undiluted joy at the prospect of having jobs and a bit of money. The labour costs might be cheaper because the cost of living is cheaper, but the wage rates can be so low that workers find it hard to survive in Thailand and Cambodia for instance.

 Western corporations used to be able to distance themselves to a certain extent from the conditions in their sub-contractors assembly plants, because of the geographical distance between, say, Britain and China. People in Britain did not necessarily realise that when they bought an item of clothing from Umbro, a British company, it was actually made in China in sweatshop conditions, conditions that would just not be acceptable in modern day Britain.
 
 Campaigns by Human Rights agencies, such as Oxfam and the Clean Clothes Campaign, have publicised the conditions suffered by workers in the sweatshops. Although companies may try to say that they are not responsible for the conditions of work in the firms they sub-contract out to, campaigners have appealed to the sense of fair play and compassion in consumers. Although not all consumers are worried by the idea of sweatshop conditions for the people who make their clothes, the corporations do not want a bad image in the media and have produced corporate ‘codes of conduct’ and company policies which try to improve their standing in the public eye as well as (maybe) alleviate some of the worst problems.

 How far they have managed to clean up their image or help people in sweatshops in the developing world is debatable. According to Oxfam, the ‘race to the bottom’ was inevitable as you cannot have very cheap clothes and also give your workers a decent standard of living. Although British workers also suffered from sweatshops in the past, a mixture of increased unionisation, philanthropy and labour laws helped to improve conditions for the working class.

 The question of how far can Western corporations distance themselves from sweatshop production can only really be understood by looking at the bigger picture, which is: why is the pursuit of profit, to the detriment of all the finer things in life for the working class, so all pervasive?

 The main goal in capitalism is the pursuit of profit. Profit is put before needs. This is why millions of people do not have enough to eat – they simply don’t have the money to buy food. The world is quite capable of growing enough food for everyone and more, but no money means no food for poor people. Poor people are stuck if they cannot improve their wages and conditions due to merciless capitalists, unless they either migrate legally or illegally to another better paid job in another country.

 According to philosopher Iris Marion Young, we cannot blame consumers directly for the misfortune of the sweatshop workers, but we can accept political responsibility and change the process. She said that, although many individuals are involved, from the manufacturers to the consumers, they should all play their part in improving the lot of the ‘Third World’ workers. This is unrealistic in a capitalist world. Capitalist corporations are there to make money and all we can do is alleviate the symptoms – unless we cure it completely by changing the economic system in which we live. There will always be someone who wants to make even more profit, by forcing poor conditions on the workers, or moving the factory elsewhere to where the labour laws are laxer, as happened from Mexico to China, when some macquiladoras (or assembly plants) in Mexico were closed so the capitalist corporations could find cheaper labour elsewhere. And consumers may not even know where else to buy their clothes.

 So, although Oxfam and the Clean Clothes campaign have brought the attention of the media to the practices of manufacturers, still people cannot see it for themselves ‘next door’ so are immune to the suffering. The suffering is too far away. They would help their next door neighbour but that is in close proximity. People at a distance are ‘out of sight, out of mind’. When even photos can be taken different ways, people would be overwhelmed if they did not block out some charitable appeals.

 Some people think that the third world workers can work themselves out of poverty, in the way of the ‘Asian tigers’, without realising that the odds are stacked against them and they cannot repeat the success story of say, Hong Kong. The workers are very much subjugated and repressed in these assembly plants. It is difficult to see where they could help themselves, anyone found trying to start a union is quickly out of a job.

 The Western corporations are just trying to do what they have to do in capitalism: make the biggest profit they can. If they don’t their rivals will undercut them and they will eventually go out of business or be taken over. It is a dog-eat-dog world, and whereas people have to acquire visas and passports, corporations and capital have relative ease of flows across the world. Money eases the wheels of commerce, but the migration of people can be very much resented and resisted, as in Mexico with the self-styled American Border Patrol.

 Capitalists, who make up the richest 5 percent or so in the world, may not be ‘bad’ people: they may give to charity, go to church and be kind to children and animals. But back at work, the system makes them behave in a ruthless race to make the biggest profits. If they don’t, they go under. Charities like Oxfam and the Clean Clothes Campaign are just whistling in the wind. They may dampen down the worst excesses of the capitalist profit-seeking, but they can never stop exploitation until and unless they help to usher in a world, where people are free to enjoy their lives instead of making millions for the very few rich capitalists at the top.

VERONICA CLANCHY