Chris Lack explains how to stop fueling appalling working conditions in the developing world
Many questions have recently been asked about Oxford’s role in the world. Should it raise tuition fees? Should it increase access from state schools? Or should it even take a principled stand against government cuts? These debates are important, but I want to add something to them. If the University decides to combat sweatshops, it can become a force for good without even noticing. At a cost of £12,000 per year, Oxford can improve third world working conditions and transform hundreds of lives.
The problem with sweatshops is that their effects are very hard to trace. Clothes manufactured in factories in the developing world are filtered through long and murky supply chains before they reach British consumers, and companies often refuse to admit where their products were originally made. The result? When you buy a T-shirt in a high street store, there is no way of knowing what kind of working conditions you are supporting.
What we do know is that some of these conditions are terrible. In some cases, labourers work for sixteen hours a day and are paid three pence per hour. Workers in a factory in Honduras tried to form a trade union; shortly afterwards, the entire factory was closed down, putting 1,800 people out of work. Independent reports found that the closure was motivated, at least partly, by the desire to stop workers organising for better conditions.
Why does this affect Oxford? It affects us because the University is a major clothing retailer. Every year, students and tourists spend more than £1 million buying clothing which bears the Oxford logo.
At the moment, we have no idea where this clothing is made. Of course, it could be that every Oxford University hoodie is manufactured in honest, reputable factories: mini paradises where workers have well protected rights and decent pay. Yet when the supply chains of other Universities have been traced, grave violations of human rights have been revealed. The factory in Honduras sold stash to many American universities. Without transparency and accountability, it is impossible to assume that our stash is made in any better conditions.
So, what can the University do? It can affiliate to an organisation called the Worker’s Rights Consortium. The Consortium traces the supply chains of university stash and then assesses the working conditions of the factories where the clothes are made. If the rights of workers are being violated, the Consortium produces a report which prompts a publicity campaign.
The Consortium has had some staggering successes. It drew attention to the plight of the workers in the factory in Honduras and prompted a massive publicity campaign. The owners of the factory were faced with such a dramatic PR disaster that they were forced to reopen the factory and re-employ over 1000 people. The Consortium has consistently revealed and reversed rights violations such as these.
Of course, I have been assuming that sweatshops are a bad thing. In fact, some people have argued that sweatshops should be supported. One argument is that if sweatshops are boycotted, then they will have to reduce their output or shut down, and many workers will lose their jobs. Yet the Worker’s Rights Consortium does not shut factories down, or boycott them for long periods of time. Its goal is to keep them operating while improving the conditions of their workers. In Honduras, far from shutting factories down and creating unemployment, the Consortium created jobs for 1,200 people.
Maybe by making factories pay higher wages, the Consortium will reduce profits and make factories move elsewhere. But the Worker’s Rights Consortium checks the working conditions of factories all around the world, so no matter where a factory relocates, the pressure to improve working conditions will be the same. Unlike local minimum wages or unions, the pressure exerted by the Consortium cannot be avoided by relocation.
If factory workers are paid more, then we will probably pay slightly higher prices for the clothes we buy. Yet the wages of factory workers are a small proportion of the total cost of making an item of clothing. First, the cotton has to be grown and transported to the factory; after the garment has been made, it has to be shipped to England and distributed to high street shops, where rents and UK employees have to be paid. Even if the wages of factory workers doubled, the difference to us as consumers would be small.
Joining the Worker’s Rights Consortium would cost Oxford £12,000 per year. That’s less than 0.002% of our annual income. There are undoubtedly difficult times ahead for University finances, and the case will be made for spending money on research, maintenance grants, and improving access. These things are important, but we should not forget our duty to hunt down exploitation in the manufacturing of the clothes we sell.
We have the opportunity to do a vast amount of good, without even noticing the cost.