(First published in Norwegian 12 Apr 2005)
By Pia Gaarder
Exposure of gross exploitation and indefensible conditions in factories in the Third World lie behind the clothing industry’s interest in ethics. Out of fear that the consumers will turn their backs on them, constantly more brand name firms and clothing chains have developed ethical guidelines that make minimum demands with regard to salary and working conditions at factories where the clothes are sewn.
But where would Norway have been today if everything from decent working hours to security measures at Norwegian places of work were carried out because customers abroad were worried about negative comments and therefore required that Norwegian sweaters, fish or steel be produced under ethically defensible conditions?
We would probably not have gotten far if improvements in conditions at Norwegian work places were based on fortuitous exposures in the foreign media, rather than being designated in law code with a clear punitive framework and defended by an organized labour movement. It is therefore not fortuitous that 10 years of ethical guidelines has not improved the situation in the globalized textile sector. On the contrary.
This report examines how the system of suppliers in the textile sector creates increasingly tougher working day conditions for the 100-120 million textile workers in the poor parts of the world.
Today factories in poor countries are thrown into a savage competition for short-term contracts from Western band name producers. Countries and factories underbid each other. To attract foreign capital, the authorities are reluctant to impose a decent minimum wage, the unions are restrained, and the social compensations are kept at a minimum. Exploitation of the workers is the result.
Ethical guidelines are better than nothing, but do not solve the problems. These guidelines are voluntary and formulated by the companies themselves. They never aim to expose the Western clothing industry and never query either the industry’s profit level or the conditions forced on the factories and the workers in developing countries.
To stop the poor countries’ “race to the bottom”, we need completely different remedies than the industry’s half-hearted interest in ethics.