Britain's second largest supermarket chain last night launched an investigation into allegations that workers who make its clothes in Bangladesh are being forced to work up to 80 hours a week for as little as 4p an hour.Is it possible that people are so niave that they don't know that our wonderful western way of life is built on two (at least) grubby little secrets: exploiting thrid world labour to the maximum extent possible, and environmental destruction?
Asda, one of three major discount clothing retailers accused of breaching international labour standards, said it would audit its suppliers in response to a report in today's Guardian into the pay and conditions of Bangladeshi garment workers who supply British companies.
(Source: The Guardian)1
Asda fills its stores with clothes made by people paid a pittance - even by the standards of their native country. This is inevitable, because Asda is part of a ruthless competitive market where driving prices down is essential. That is why most of the western world's manufacturing is carried out in China, India and other places. The western consumer, by and large, doesn't care about the rights of the person who made their flash new jeans. The fact that the person who made them is probably working 80 hours a week for pennies, is treated brutally by their employer and has no labour rights, doesn't seem to matter.
It reminds me of the stuation described in HG wells's novel, The Time Machine. In that book, a Victorian scientist travels forward in time. He finds the elegant remains of a great civilisation, where delicate, child-like people dwell among the ruins of magnificent buildings. He then discovers a grisly secret. These delicate Eloi are the descendents of the rich and wealthy people of Wells's own time. There is another strand of human evolution, the ghastly Morlocks, who dwell in a complex of underground, industrial complexes. In a grim inversion of the exploitation of workers by capitalists in Victorian England, the Morlocks have now become the exploiters, treating the Eloi as cattle to be devoured.
The modern Morlocks are the labourers in China, Bangladesh and India. We want to enjoy the lifestyle that their labour gives us, but we are too squeamish to confront the reality of exploitation, neo-slavery and indentured labour face to face (because Marx was right, you know, human labour is the facotr that underpins commodity value - the constant hunt for ever cheaper labour proves this), so we send it off shore, far away, so we don't need to face up to it, as the capitalists of The Time Machine sent their workers underground, so the wealthy and privileged could enjoy bright and pleasant Earth.
The expolitation of third world labour has not been a secret. Everyone minded to find out can find the information easily. Naomi Klein wrote a bad book, No Logo, about it. There are plenty of other sources of information. But most of us simply don't care enough to worry about the implications of a label saying "Made in China." We're only interested in what it says on the price tag - a selfish trade off of our well renumerated labour, with rights taken for granted by worker and employer, in pleasant conditions, for forty hours a week with statutory holidays, against the misery, degradation and exploitation of neo-Morlocks in Bangladesh, Pakistan, China or India, or anywhere else people aren't too important.
1 - "Asda, Primark and Tesco accused over clothing factories," by Karen McVeigh, in The Guardian, Monday July 16, 2007. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/retail/story/0,,2127240,00.html)