Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Think before you next buy cheap clothes manufactured in a third world country

“This t-shirt was manufactured in Cambodia by workers who earn $160 a month.”

This is a label I would like to see on the next t-shirt I buy. The next t-shirt you buy.

Truth in labeling.

But how can anyone live on $160 a month,” you might ask.

With great difficulty,” is the answer, “but it is better than the $80 a month most Cambodian garment factory workers earn today.”

$20 a week is not wage that enables garment factory workers, usually young and female, to eat a healthy balanced diet.  Rice alone costs $1 a kilo.

$3 a day is not a wage that she can survive on – even if she lives, sardine-like, in a dormitory with a dozen other young women.   

30 cents an hour is, however, a wage that makes it possible for you and me to buy ridiculously cheap clothes at Target, Coles, Kmart, Target and Big W.

The striking garment factory workers killed with AK47s by the Cambodian Army on 3rd. Jan were asking that their wages be increased to 60 cents an hour.

$6 a day would be roughly one third of what a Target, Coles, Kmart, Target and Big W employee earns in an hour.

Sam Rainsy, his deputy Kem Sokha and garment factory union leader Rong Chhun appeared in court yesterday to be questioned re governments allegations that they incited the violence that led to the Army killing 5 factory workers. A few thousand supporters rallied outside the court, blocking the road, as Rainsy and his co-accused played their role in the political theatre taking place inside.

Outside there was political theatre of a different kind – two dozen or so young men wearing matching black and silver motor-cycle helmets – Darth Vader look-alikes - lined up across the road. These men, in civilian clothes, usually carry batons and iron bars to be used to beat up peaceful demonstrators – monks, old women and journalists. Phnom Penh’s City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he had no idea why the young Darth Vader look-alikes were there. They didn’t stay for long, however – intimidated into making themselves scarce by the laughter and jeering of the CNRP supporters.

Could it be, in the event that violence did seem to be initiated by the demonstrators, (rocks thrown at army personnel with plexiglass shields) that it was these Darth Vader look-alikes – agents provocateur – who initiated it?

Certainly there is nothing I have seem, in dozens demonstrations now, to suggest that any CNRP supports would initiate violence. The atmosphere has always be peaceful – accompanied by lots of singing, lots of laughter and with dozens of CNRP staff on hand to keep the crown under control.

The appearance of Rainsy and his co-accused in court yielded no outcome – unsurprising since the allegations that he had incited violence was clearly politically motivated. No doubt there will be more such intimidatory tactics employed in the months ahead as Hun Sen does all he can to neutralize Rainsy and the CNRP. Rainsy, stubborn and driven as he is, will resist all attempts to be neutralized. He has been Hun Sen’s nemesis for the last 20 years and he is not going to stop now. And he will continue to use non-violent means to bring Hun Sen’s dictatorship down.

These political games can be a distraction from what is at stake here; what it is that led to the deaths for which Rainsy and his co-accused have been blamed – bringing us back to our own complicity, as consumers, in the politics of poor third world countries that manufacture cheap clothes for we in the developed world.

If you bought cheap clothes or shoes recently it is almost certain that the savings to your budget were only possible because someone, somewhere in the third world, manufactured them. And this someone, almost certainly female, did not get paid enough in a 6 day, 12 hour working week to support herself or help support her family. You will never meet this young woman but her fate is inextricably bound up with your own budgetary decisions. Your cheap clothes have been acquired at the expense of her health and perhaps, if she worked in Bangladesh in a factory that collapsed, her life. Or your cheap clothes and shoes may have been made by a young man who was shot a couple of weeks ago by a member of the Royal Cambodian Army – defending the right of Korean factory owners to exploit cheap Cambodian labor to benefit your right to buy cheap clothes and shoes.

If this form of exploitation was taking place in Australia you wouldn’t tolerate it, right? So why do you tolerate it when it happens in Cambodia, in Bangladesh? “But I am not responsible,” you might respond indignantly and a little hurt. “What can I do? What can one person do?”

Well, one person can put some effort into finding out about the clothes s/he is about to acquire were made and how much the workers who made them earn. If enough people do this, if the idea catches on, some savvy person in marketing in Target, Coles, Big W or the companies that manufacture in the third world, will come up with the bright idea of including in the label attached to the item  where it was made and how much the workers were paid. And this marketing person will come up with a clever way of convincing consumers to pay that extra $1 or whatever it might be so that the makers of the item are not exploited. And you, the consumer, will be able to feel a warm inner glow knowing that the cheap item of clothing you bought at Target did not involve you in the exploitation of cheap labour. Ethical spending. If Target were to do it first, say, and the ‘truth in labeling’ bore fruit (increased profits) other clothing manufacturers and sales outlets would be inclined, for purely commercial reasons, to follow suit.

A utopian idea? Perhaps, but worth a try. In the meantime, erring on the side of caution, because I know that you do not want to intentionally exploit the maker of your clothes and shoes, (and certainly not for them to be killed for the crime as requesting a wage increase to 60 cents an hour), make an effort to find out where they were manufactured and do not buy them if you do not get a satisfactory answer.

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