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The cost of our clothes

Written By: - Date published: 9:35 am, May 9th, 2013 - 23 comments
Categories: capitalism, class war, cost of living, International, news, poverty, workers' rights - Tags: ,

When I was growing up in the 60s, my mother used to make most of our clothes.  By the time I was in my late teens, in the 60s, it became easier to buy relatively cheap, off the peg clothes in shops.  Many people now know nothing else.  These days. most of those clothes are made in factories in relatively poor countries.  Many of us are aware, that those clothes are made in factories where people work in poor conditions, for wages that are very low by our standards.

This is not our doing, but many of us often benefit in small ways from the relatively easy access to affordable clothing. Ultimately however, these clothes are produced through a system that enriches the corporate elites.  This is the same system that is continually undermining workers, beneficiaries and working conditions in countries like NZ, though no to the same degree as in less well-off countries. The profiteering by the Western garment companies, ultimately damages us all.

Our MSM rarely draw attention to the conditions under which our clothes are produced.  When there are accidents in the garment factories, due to their unsafe conditions, our MSM rarely write about the underlying causes.  In poor countries, only disasters caused by “acts of god” are given the attention they gains our sympathy.

Pilger did a documentary in 2001, showing how globalisation of the garment industry resulted in people in places like Indonesia working in appalling conditions for meagre wages, so that designer brands like GAP could be affordable to buyers in western countries.  It was shocking at the time, for those of us who saw it.  But then it moved into the background noise of the diversionary infotainment stories in our media.

New rulers of the world

It’s a powerful documentary, in Pilger’s inimitable style.  It expresses strong views, based on some in depth research.  His website provides the rationale of the documentary:

The film turns the spotlight on the new rulers of the world – the great multinationals and the governments and institutions that back them such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation under whose rules millions of people throughout the world lose their jobs and livelihood. …

To examine the true effects of globalisation, Pilger travels to Indonesia – …

… where high-street brands such as Nike, Adidas, Gap and Reebok are mass produced by cheap labour in ‘sweatshops’ and sold for up to 250 times the amount received by workers.

The documentary shows conditions in a large sweatshop in Jakarta, where workers (mainly women and children) live in squalid camps, in order to earn just over half the amount deemed to be a “living wage” by the Indonesian government.

Many children there were undernourished and prone to disease. While filming, Pilger himself caught dengue fever.

Garment factories producing clothes for richer countries, are still using exploitative, low paid and damaging practices in diverse places, like Cambodia, as reported in Green Left.

Last month there was possibly the world’s worst industrial accident in a garment factory in Bangladesh.  The NZ Herald report on it a few days ago, focuses mostly on the government’s poor oversight, and dodgy structure of the building.

Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith spoke as the government cracked down on those it blamed for the disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. …

The government appears to be attempting to fend off accusations that it is in part to blame for the tragedy because of weak oversight of the building’s construction.

The article fails to mention the underlying cause of the “accident”: that the garments were being produced for some major Western brands.  It fails to provide the context in which pressure from “the new rulers of the world” results in governments and factory owners in poor countries cutting corners.

Overnight, above NZ Herald article has been updated.  This morning I’m pleased to see the article now headlines the pressure on Western retailers to fix the factories.  However, while references to the multinational corporations have been inserted, the original focus still dominates.

The death toll is now over 700,

bangladesh factory collapse


As reported by Inquirer News:

The police control room overseeing the recovery operation said the death toll stood at 705 on Tuesday afternoon as workers pulled more bodies out of the wreckage of the eight-story building that was packed with workers at five garment factories when it collapsed on April 24. The factories were making clothing bound for major retailers around the world.

The disaster is the worst ever in the garment sector, surpassing the 1911 garment disaster in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory, which killed 146 workers, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that killed 112, also in 2012. It is also one of the deadliest industrial accidents ever. …

The workers, many who made little more than the national minimum wage of about $38 per month, are demanding at least four months in salary. The workers had set Tuesday as the deadline for the payment of wages and other benefits.

Though the worst, this “accident” wasn’t the first.  In November 2012, Al Jazeera reported on two recent fires in Bangladesh garment factories.  Workers a the second fire were angry that nothing had changed after the first fire.

Many of the Western companies that were getting their garments made in the factory that collapsed in April, are failing to own up.  According to Al Jazeera on 27 April, “activists” have become highly critical of the profiteering corporates.  Only “British low-cost fashion line Primark and Spanish giant Mango” have so far put their hands up. Others, like Wal- Mart are “investigating” or in denial.

The US said it could not confirm whether any US companies were sourcing garments from the complex, as protesters in San Francisco targeted the headquarters of Gap with banners reading “No More Death Traps”.

The International reported on May 3, does make the connections the low prices and “tight deadlines” demanded by retail companies in the US and Europe, and the dangerous working conditions. Primark was the main retailer that owned up to sourcing products from the factory, and expressed their concern.  Others still keep a low profile.

This is the cost of our clothing; produced by a “neoliberal” capitalist system that favours the elites, and ultimately damages us all to a greater or lesser extent.

[update] NZ Herald is now reporting the death toll has risen above 800.


23 comments on “The cost of our clothes”

  1. Colonial Viper 1

    Western corporates and their directors have been negligent in the extreme for not forcing their subcontractors to meet even minimal labour and safety standards.

    In theory, western corporates are in the perfect position to proactively force massive improvement in industrial and health and safety standards in countries like Bangladesh. Or they would be, if they weren’t so busy treating those places like mines and worker gulags.

    Mind you many US clothing brands do the same to their own citizens: using low cost prison labour (most of whom are black), just like the good ol days.

    • mikesh 1.1

      Or governments could impose tarifs on imported clothes on the basis that these tarifs would be removed only if wages and working conditions improved to acceptable levels.

    • ghostrider888 1.2

      cottening on

  2. prism 2

    I am pleased to read your post karol. I went straight to Open Mike and put a relevant comment there. My comment on Bangladesh is on Open Mike No.12.

    • karol 2.1

      Yes, prism. I saw it and agree with your comments. I was pleased to see someone had been aware of this awful event and was concerned about it.

  3. Bill 3

    And if a recent study done on ‘Apple’ is anything to go by, these ‘western’ corporations would still be making immense profits if their production was undertaken in ‘the west’ paying ‘western’ pay rates. And, of course, there’d be many more, now defunct domestic producers still existing had the rush to exploit cheap labour and lax conditions overseas not taken place.

    But then, relative wage rates in ‘the west’ couldn’t have been pushed down, profits couldn’t have soared and we’d be living in a more benign (not ‘good’ and not ‘desirable’ – but still, more benign) form of Capitalism. And that’s a bad thing from the perspective of profit and power.

    Maybe the concept of internationalism will enjoy a resurgence, but I’m not holding my breath and given the impoverishment of western consumers in relation to 30 or 40 years ago and the loss of plant, machinery and skills in ‘the west’ due to shifting production off-shore, I’m thinking the horse has bolted.

    And so Globalisation will trundle on and cheap ‘third world’ working conditions will, by and by, be introduced to ‘the west’ via prison labour (already existant in NZ) and more draconian employment/unemployment legislations alongside the final gutting of unions.

    And the final result will be shift away from the poor in other countries providing for us, the rich ‘western consumer’, to a situation where the ‘lucky’ poor in every country (those who can actually get into paid employment) will provide only for the rich in every other country. And the Capitalist competition (within the productive sphere) will be over market share for shrunken markets that many of us will have no meaningful access to.

    And if you want a taste of what that’s going to be like for the bulk of people, then cast an eye over Africa or Central/South America where exclusion and serious poverty playing out alongside highly oppressive forms of governmence is the order of the day.

  4. Rosie 4

    The continuation of abuse of garment workers in many parts of the world and the reality of their sub human existence is just heartbreaking.

    Despite a lot of campaigning and hard work by the workers themselves along side international Labour rights groups, garment workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, Mexico, Turkey, Egypt still suffer severe life affecting injuries in unsafe factories, appalling and unacceptable work conditions and poverty wages right through to mass death such as the factory collapse you discuss above.

    The Tazreen fire in Bangladesh that killed 112 workers in 2012 you would think, would wake up the retailers who get their clothing manufactured in such places but it didn’t. Retailers like GAP and Disney continue to pay lip service to their own H&S regulations and some have refused to even sign new contracts to create safe work places. At the time that the factory collapse occurred, survivors from the Tazreen factory fire were touring the States, doing public talks, meeting with authorities and picketing headquarters of the retailers who have their contracts with these terrible employers. What would they have felt to hear the news of the factory collapse?

    In NZ we left are left with a poor choice for purchasing ethically produced clothes. Buy NZ made? Good luck. Clothing manufacturers in NZ are either struggling or closing down. You can still get few locally made items, er,socks made by Colombine in Hawkes Bay but they’re not going to clothe you are they?! You can buy some pricey clothes from flash “ethical” clothing companies (Eg, Kowtow) but its not within everyones reach. You can buy online but thats kind of inconvenient, or you can just get around in a few carefully purchased essential items.What to do? Worker run collectives producing good quality clothes for men, women and kids from sustain-ably produced textiles?

    • karol 4.1

      Yes, Rosie, it is a fraught situation and hard to know what to do. We have this issue of where to buy. The countries and people that provide cheap labour for wealthy multinational companies have been made dependent on the meagre wages.

      Worker cooperatives in NZ could be a positive step IMO, as part of an international campaign to dismantle the whole corrupt system: a system led by the corporates, IMF, World Bank, etc.

    • prism 4.2

      One fire doesn’t of a conscience make. Or something. The fire in that Arab city was it in Dubai that killed babies and toddlers. The female owner wouldn’t go to Court. Even with her Gucci handbag where she could have found some small change in a gesture of contrition. Then recently there was another fire at that mall. There was a problem originally about not using fire retardant paint but I don’t know about the latest.

      Perhaps women should adopt a worker. Something similar has been done, names and small details have gone with packaged items.

      The amount of wasted garments that are still good but have just been roughly used or stained amounts to tonnes that have to be dumped. Cotton and polycotton tops made good rags, polar fleece can be good on the inside, and made into patchwork blankets etc but that still is just a portion, even if a significant one. And each item the result of skilled and concentrated effort by someone getting $38 a MONTH (from the item) and even in a low inflation area could one eat and sleep safely for that, and what if a family was trying to, with only a mother who has to earn to keep her children alive and well.

      • Rosie 4.2.1

        Hi Prism.
        I guess the problem isn’t that there hasn’t been just one fire. Factory fires are common in Bangladesh but still multinationals and consumers turn a blind eye. Maybe its too inconvenient for them/us to have a conscience.

        I’m a bit lost of the “perhaps women should adopt a worker”. Can you please expand? Do you mean we should feel a connection or at least some gratitude for the person who made our garment or pair of shoes? If so, I agree. I’m just not sure about the “women” bit.

        After having this conversation I thought about my sneakers. They are the “No Sweat” brand. No Sweat used to make casual clothes and shoes made in factories that used only 100% Union labour. Depending on the country they worked in, under the collective agreement workers had access to full healthcare, education for their children and profit sharing. Awhile ago I went to buy some more sneakers and t shirts online but the site had gone and I haven’t followed up with it recently. Theres no excuse for this work environment to not be the norm. I think if consumers did have a thought or care about where their products come from it might put pressure on the multinationals, those kinds of workplaces might have an opportunity to exist as a reality.

        • Rosie

          Er, that should read “the problem is that there hasn’t been……….”

        • prism

          Men coulddo this reciprocal thing too but I am thinking of the tonnes of women’s clothes that get sold to NZs so women are gaining big advantage from these clothes. Some women’s dress shops have had to withdraw from locations lately what with the down-turn. But the multiplicity of womens clothing shops almost matches the pub numbers in colonial days.

          And somewhere a while ago, there was a system going where people who packed or picked said a hello to the users – perhaps a note in a box of dried fruit or something.

          • Rosie

            Thanks Prism:-)
            I agree there is an abundance of cheapie chain stores for women, but I must say, of all the blokes I know, none of them has a smaller wardrobe than me! I also know women who only buy from second hand shops and charity shops and a few that sew all their own clothes.

            Still, that’s most likely a minority of people that take steps like that to lessen their impact. We have a global industrial clothing supply problem in regards to worker health, safety and well being and it doesn’t help that we perpetuate it. I wonder if consumers will start demanding more care from the manufacturers of their clothes in light of the Bangladesh disaster.

  5. Rosie 5

    PS. Check out a link to a Fiji workers rights campaign I posted on Open Mike. The situation for workers in Fiji has been flying under the radar for too long as well.

  6. georgecom 6

    One way of trying to slightly lower the steep imbalance is through the likes of union aid – helping workers organise of developing countries.


    even $10 per month makes a difference

  7. Steve Morris 7

    Consumers must vote with their wallets to make any real change. Check out Freeset at http://www.freesetglobal.com a business that was set up by NZers Kerry and Annie Hilton who gave up living in Albany to live in the slums of Kolkata to rescue women trafficked in the sex industry. All profits from the business in Kolkata benefit the women (salary, health insurance and retirement plan) and are used to grow the business.

    • ghostrider888 7.1

      I have a freeset shoulder bag. Our congregation support their mission.

  8. idlegus 8

    its def been on my mind, especially when it was being reported that 100 were dead but 700 were missing, i was thinking why coouldnt they just say up to 800 were possibly dead. i found this powerful image here, http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/08/a-final-embrace-the-most-haunting-photograph-from-bangladesh/#1

  9. ghostrider888 9

    some 3-ply Jolly UMconditional PositivE Regard for your heart-warming work, karol.

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