Two of Britain's major high street retailers launched inquiries last night into allegations that factory workers who make their clothes in India are being paid as little as 13p per hour for a 48-hour week, wages so low the workers claim they sometimes have to rely on government food parcels.The Guardian has run several stories about third world exploitation (try here (3)) recently, which is obviously a good thing. It begs the question why this is only news now - this has been going on for a long time, and it hasn't even been a secret.
The investigation, which follows our report in July in which Primark, Asda
and Tesco were accused of breaching international labour standards in Bangladesh, has uncovered a catalogue of allegations of Dickensian pay and conditions in factories owned by exporters who supply clothes to the UK. India's largest ready-made clothing exporter, Gokaldas Export, which supplies brands including Marks & Spencer, Mothercare and H&M, confirmed that wages paid to garment workers were as low as £1.13 for a nine-hour day. This fails to meet their basic needs, according to factory workers and Indian unions and so falls below the minimum international labour standards promised by the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a code of conduct which sets out basic rights for employees across the supply chain. Marks & Spencer is a member of the ETI, as are Mothercare, Gap and Primark. (2)
The Guardian might say that they are simply responding to media interest, and stories like this wouldn't have attracted much attention before. That's a pretty poor defence, however. I appreciate that The Guardian is a commercial concrn - it has to attract readers in sufficient numbers to appeal so that advertisers will pay enough to keep the paper going. But a newspaper - particularly one like the Guardian - has a duty to lead public opinion, not just respond to it.
A story like this ten years ago might have been commendable. Now, the paper is just pandering to the vague unease about globalisation felt by its middle-class readership.
1 - "The sweatshop high street - more brands under fire," by Karen McVeigh in The Guardian, 3rd of September, 2007. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/supermarkets/story/0,,2161301,00.html)
2 - ibid.
3 - As described previously on lefthandpalm: http://lefthandpalm.blogspot.com/2007/07/supermarkets-slammed-over-3rd-world.html