You’ve undoubtedly noticed the proliferation of cheap clothes in shops around the country – supermarkets stocking low-priced jeans, often branded jeans which sell well below the RRP. Jeans as an item of clothing are increasingly being made at the cheapest possible prices, which in turn leads manufacturers to seek for ways and means to produce those jeans at the lowest cost – and this has inevitable impacts on labour costs. Sometimes jeans manufacturers will subcontract their manufacturing to a factory somewhere in the world which will then subcontract to another factory which can produce those jeans at an even cheaper rate. This effect undoubtedly creates confusion for anyone trying to analysing the working conditions attached to the jeans sold in our shops.
The term ‘sweatshop’ is one primarily linked to the working conditions associated with clothing manufacture, particularly shoes but also with regard to jeans. Oftentimes young women are worked for very long hours in cramped conditions to be paid a pittance – probably an amount insufficient to live on. According to the Ethical Consumer Research Association more and more of the jeans that make their way to our shops and wardrobes do so via manufacture in Eastern Europe or in North Africa – in particular places like Poland, Tunisia and Morocco are likely starting points for the low-slung button-flys currently adorning your groinal area.
Unfortunately the working practices in such countries are not up to scratch, with Labour Behind the Label reporting that workers at a Gap factory in Russia were paid just 10p per hour and made to work in appalling conditions. Furthermore a factory in Bulgaria which manufactured clothes for Levi Strauss was reported to have made strip-searches of female workers mandatory, with refusal resulting in termination of employment.
One proposed solution by manufacturers was to impose a Code of Conduct governing working conditions, working hours and standards of pay. Unfortunately though this sounds like something good and is an initial step in the right direction, these codes of conduct are sometimes little more than public appeasement exercises with little or no evidence that these codes of conduct actually have an effect on the situation in the factories. Furthermore the codes often are too flimsy to be acceptable – consider the idea of a standard working week of 60 hours, when the internationally recognised standard workweek of 48 hours is still considered by some to be too much. Many of these codes of conduct do not insist upon a wage that can support the living of the worker, which is something else that needs to be addressed.
The outdoor clothing market has seen an upsurge in business as people strive to become healthier. The market appeals to the generally more affluent members of society who, fed up perhaps with having to share tennis courts with the general public have taken to the hills quite literally and therefore the prices reflect this socio-economic grouping. However the industry itself runs along the same lines as other clothing products, with outsourcing to factories in far-away lands and all the problems that this entails.
Try to buy products made within the EU or other developed countries as generally this will act as a guarantee that no oppressive labour practices were involved in the manufacture of the product you are buying.
Another issue that has to be considered is the use or selection of materials in the creation of the outdoor clothing that you wish to buy. The use of PVC, chlorine bleach and other substances should be lessened as progress is made – check for companies which promise to reduce levels of these materials in their goods.
For those of you who like to play football, be aware that there is currently a boycott in place upon Adidas-Saloman AG organised by the Australian Wildlife Protection Council because of the use of kangaroo leather in some of their football boots (the Adidas World Cup boots in particular). http://www.savethekangaroo.com/adidas/adidas_doa.shtml
One major consideration which we’ve touched on elsewhere in clothing (jeans, outdoor wear etc) is the labour processes involved in the creation of these garments. No clothing sector has been affected quite as much as the sports shoe industry.
The principles we should insist upon from all clothing manufacturers including those who manufacture sportswear are the following:
- No use of forced labour or child labour
- Freedom of association and collective bargaining
- Payment of a living wage
- A 48-hour week maximum
- Safe working conditions
- No race or gender discrimination
To achieve ECRA’s top rating, a company’s labour code would have to promise systematic monitoring by fully-independent inspection teams, which to date no multinational has agreed to. Companies, sadly, seem to treat the issue of sweatshops as a PR inconvenience rather than a serious humanitarian issue.