Thursday, 25 March 2010

Seeking justice for the forgotten victims of globalisation

At the start of the month, largely unnoticed by most of the world, 21 workers died in a fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory. According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, "emergency exits were blocked, the front gate was locked and fire extinguishing equipment was either missing or inappropriate." This was not an isolated incident, but part of a culture in which "constant repression of trade union organisation within workplaces and the failure of brands to work with trade union representatives means that workers themselves are unable to report and challenge health and safety violations."

In the West, similar malpractice died off over a century ago. Our much maligned "health and safety culture" arose in response to precisely this kind of gross negligence. Betraying their utter lack of social conscience, businesses thus moved their factories abroad to place profit before basic human safety. Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this mentality was the horrendous Bhopal disaster, for which Union Carbide is still yet to face any serious consequences.

Such obvious health hazards are only the tip of the iceberg. Whilst companies jump on the "fair trade" bandwagon and talk up their "ethical" credentials, workers across the world are labouring in sweat shops to produce items for our cheap consumption. The No Sweat campaign lists corporations from Adidas and Disney to Tesco and Wal-Mart amongst the guilty parties exploiting the poor of the third world (in many cases alongside the poor of the first world) for profit.

The disparity between PR and reality on this issue is perhaps best displayed by Sainsbury's. "Sainsbury’s commitment to Fairtrade has meant a growing number of our own label products are 100% Fairtrade," their website boasts. This includes them "converting our standard t-shirts to Fairtrade cotton to ensure farmers are paid a fair price." Unfortunately, whilst the farmers get a better deal, those who make the t-shirts from that cotton still do so in sweatshops in Bangladesh.

The most surprising revelation on unethically-made clothing, as revealed in New Scientist, is where laboratory gear is made;
I HAVE just returned from Mexico, where I visited a factory making medical masks. Faced with fierce competition, the owner has cut his costs by outsourcing some of his production. Scores of people work for him in their homes, threading elastic into masks by hand. They are paid below the minimum wage, with no job security and no healthcare provision.

Users of medical masks and other laboratory gear probably give little thought to where their equipment comes from. That needs to change. A significant proportion of these products are made in the developing world by low-paid people with inadequate labour rights. This leads to human misery on a tremendous scale.

Take lab coats. Many are made in India, where most cotton farmers are paid an unfair price for their crops and factory employees work illegal hours for poor pay.

One-fifth of the world's surgical instruments are made in northern Pakistan. When I visited the area a couple of years ago I found most workers toiling 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for less than a dollar a day, exposed to noise, metal dust and toxic chemicals. Thousands of children, some as young as 7, work in the industry.

Computers are another problem area. Many are made in China, where labour abuses have been reported, including the use of child labour.

To win international contracts, factory owners must offer rock-bottom prices, and consequently drive down wages and labour conditions as far as they can. We laboratory scientists in the developed world may unwittingly be encouraging this: we ask how much our equipment will cost, but which of us asks who made it and how much they were paid?

This is no small matter. Science is supposed to benefit humanity, but because of the conditions under which their tools are made, many scientists may actually be causing harm.
This trend can be resisted.

Campaigns such as No Sweat and the Clean Clothes Campaign play an important part in raising awareness in the first world, and making consumers think twice about what they buy. However, this cannot be all of the battle. The problem is not simply that certain employers need to be pressured to act ethically, but that capitalism - in the drive for the most profit, in the fastest time, at the least expense - thrives on exploitation. We need to challenge the system itself, rather than hoping that one can make an inherently exploitative system "ethical."

That challenge is already underway. In November last year, Honduran workers - with the solidarity of US students - forced Fruit of the Loom to reopen its factory and recognise the workers' trade union rights. Though just one victory, it sets an important precedent and shows what determined organisation and a campaign of international solidarity can achieve.

It is too late for the garment workers who died in the Bangladeshi factory fire, but those who survive them and continue to campaign could still secure the fate of many others. As workers, we need to raise awareness of this cause and to build the links of solidarity. In the race to the bottom that is the globalised economy, an injury to one truly is an injury to all.