Who pays for Primark’s high profits?


11:13 am - November 4th 2009

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contribution by Jesse Lerner-Kinglake

British companies have been battered by the financial crisis. Yet Primark, one of Britain’s largest retailers, continues to thrive. Fuelled by the retailer’s impressive sales growth of 7%, AB Foods, the group which owns Primark, yesterday announced £655 million in yearly earnings. The future looks bright for the high street chain.

How is it that Primark has been able to post lucrative profits while the rest of the country plunges deeper into recession?

The answer lies in its business dealings with overseas suppliers. To obtain cheap garments as cheaply as possible for sale in the UK, companies like Primark squeeze suppliers in developing countries. The net result of this practice, however, is a vicious race to the bottom in which overseas workers are hit the hardest.

The conditions facing men and women in factories making clothes for top high street brands are simply scandalous. According to original research carried out by War on Want, garment workers in sweatshops across Bangladesh earn as little as 7p an hour and face up to 80-hour weeks. Abuse at the hands of factory owners is endemic, with women workers particularly at risk.

The British public is well aware of these abuses, thanks to widespread media coverage and high-profile exposés of the industry. But while it’s widely agreed that sweatshops must be put to an end, the best approach for doing so has not always been clear.

Boycotts carry the risk of shutting down factories which, in spite of their draconian conditions, are a crucial source of employment. These jobs are backbreaking and offer paltry wages, but they’re better than having no work at all.

At the same time, relying on companies to regulate themselves isn’t working. By signing up to voluntary codes of conduct, some companies have pledged to improve conditions in their supply chains. Such measures, however, are unenforceable. Clothing companies continue to source from sweatshops around the globe, skirting their own rules for the sake of their profits.

If these tactics have largely failed, what is the most effective way to fight sweatshop exploitation?

The new Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign offers members of the public an alternative solution – firm government regulation of the fashion industry. Endorsed already by thousands of people, the campaign demands the UK government guarantee workers supplying UK companies basic rights, like a living wage and the right to join a trade union.

If the past is any guide, Primark’s announcement of record-breaking profits will not cause it to rethink its business practices. Real and lasting change in the garment industry can only be achieved through strong government intervention, which in turn must come from public pressure.

UK citizens have long made it clear that they desire a world without sweatshops. Now it’s up to us to make that happen.

————
Jesse Lerner-Kinglake is Communications Officer for War on Want

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Reader comments


1. Luke Waterfield

Jesse, could you point me in the direction of the research you quote on working hours/practices etc?

I know this is vrery old but I thought people might find it interesting: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/sep/05/comment.fairtrade

Anybody who thinks the expensive shops are any less tough at negotiating with suppliers is daft. Primark does well because it doesn’t screw its customers.

Hi Luke,

The numbers are culled from War on Want’s series of ‘Fashion Victims’ reports, the most recent of which was released in December of last year.

They can be found here

http://www.waronwant.org/campaigns/supermarkets/fashion-victims/inform/13593-fashion-victims

and here:

http://www.waronwant.org/campaigns/supermarkets/fashion-victims/inform/16360-fashion-victims-ii

5. Luke Waterfield

Primark have made noises to the effect that they’ve made huge improvements since the report, including recruiting a director of ethical trading/practice and supporting team, do you know if there have been improvements since this has happened?

Hi again,

War on Want maintains regular contact with our Bangladeshi researcher on the ground, who would indicate any improvements, but none has occurred.

7. Luke Waterfield

Thanks. Keep up the good work!

Well one way of answering the question posed in the headline is to look at what happens to the incomes of the poor in poor countries with lots of sweatshops, relative to the counterfactual, what happens to the incomes of the poor in poor countries without lots of sweatshops. What do you think you’d find, if you did that? Why doesn’t War on Want, when campaigning on the issue of sweatshops, present us with basic information like that. Here is some relevant research, but I haven’t found a cross country comparisons. There’s plenty showing the relationship between export growth and poverty in poor countries (more exporting means less poverty) but I can’t find anything on garment manufacturing in particular.

I desire a world without sweatshops, because I’d like to see poor countries get richer, accompanied by better working conditions, education, health etc. etc. but I am not sure that “fighting sweatshops” in the sense of boycotting retailers is the way to get there. Putting pressure on retailers to improve working conditions in their suppliers is a good idea, so long as it doesn’t end up with manufacturing moving elsewhere and Bangladeshis losing their jobs.

If Primark has “made progress” with respect to sweatshops, it would be very interesting to see any changes in the geographical location of its suppliers – whether it has managed to improve conditions in existing suppliers or whether it has merely stopped buying from certain suppliers.

“Real and lasting change in the garment industry can only be achieved through strong government intervention, which in turn must come from public pressure.”

well, I’m not saying government intervention cannot help, but I’d say “real and lasting change” will come about when Bangladesh is no longer so dirt poor that people take jobs in sweatshops, and when factory owners have to offer better pay and working conditions in order to attract workers. So whatever policies you advocate with respect so sweatshops, it’s rather important that they do not impede growth in countries like Bangladesh

N.B. shouldn’t a charity with the name War or Want identify the most important causes of poverty (‘want’) and campaign to change them? Do sweatshops really fit that role?

UK citizens have long made it clear that they desire a world without sweatshops. Now it’s up to us to make that happen.

Then why don’t UK citizens stop buying from companies that use sweatshops?

I’m not sure UK citizens care either way, either.

That said, if you relied on the label information you’d be under the impression all Primark’s stuff was from Madrid.

@15 stop confusing everyone with facts. MNCs are bad, and the only way to solve poverty is through well-meaning hippies; if you think economic growth driven by local and international investors is more important then you’re an evil capitalist and probably a Tory to boot.

@17 what’ve Primark got to do with Madrid…?

@19 – I have no idea. An import office? I’d investigate further, but I’m wearing my best George@Asda getup today…

Neil,

We’ve found boycotts are often counterproductive, and lead to further job losses. The work may be appalling, but it’s preferable to the alternative.

That’s we’re asking for urgent government regulation of fashion companies that would ensure fair treatment of workers at the bottom of the supply chain.

And Luis, see above. We aren’t calling for a boycott. As you say, it would only hurt workers.

15. Left not Liberal

“if you think economic growth driven by local and international investors is more important then you’re an evil capitalist and probably a Tory to boot.”

The argument that sweatshops are justifiable on the basis that poorer countries are better off as a result of their presence, even if true (which I think is quite dubious), is a terrible moral argument in itself. If you can justify sending 12 year old Bangladeshi kids to work 80-hour weeks for 5p an hour on the basis that they’d stave to death otherwise then presumably the same argument can be made in favour of child prostitution – “sure sexually abusing kids is bad but at least they can buy food and contribute to the economy etc”. Doesn’t really wash does it?

Similarly, if the choice really facing poor countries is between inhumane and degrading work or abject poverty then that surely points to the fact that the international economic order itself is completely morally bankrupt and ought to be challenged.

I think one of the best ways of challenging the monstrosity of sweatshop labour is to promote solidarity with those who work in then. No Sweat is an organization worthy of support:

Ihttp://www.nosweat.org.uk/

“Boycotts carry the risk of shutting down factories which, in spite of their draconian conditions, are a crucial source of employment. These jobs are backbreaking and offer paltry wages, but they’re better than having no work at all.”

Jesse, this quote from your article above is a false dichotomy. The alternative to a job with terrible conditions and pitiful wages is not no job at all, but rather it is a job with better conditions and higher pay. All of the profits made by companies using sweatshops are profits that would otherwise go to companies who don’t engage in such practices.

The effect of a mass boycott (on a large enough scale) would be to put companies such as this out of business, but that does not mean that all of their employees would end up jobless. Many of them would end up working for competitors who need to hire more staff as they expand to take the market share of the boycotted company.

The conclusion from this is clear: we should be boycotting companies of which we do not agree with their business practices and instead buy alternative products from their competitors who act in a socially responsible manner. The only problem with boycotts is that in order to be effective they need large numbers of people involved.

17. Luis Enrique

Jesse,

yes, sorry, you made that clear and what I wrote about boycotts above was out of place. Everything else in my comment still stands, though, I think.

can you explain how you will decide upon a living wage? How would the living wage you’d like to see paid by garment manufacturers in Bangladesh compare to the prevailing wages in other jobs?

If the living wage represents are meaningful increase from the wages currently being paid, presumably you expect some decrease in employment levels, and implicitly that this decrease will be small enough not to offset the improvement in wages enjoyed by those still employed. Can you explain how Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops will go about calculating this trade off, when it comes to designing the legislation being campaigned for?

Can you comment upon other possible consequences … for example, if you succeed in raising the wages in garment manufacturing significantly above wages elsewhere in the economy, what changes would you expect to see in who gets these jobs – demand for which will presumably exceed supply by a large margin. For example, in some poor countries, favorable (usually government) jobs are sold off, and the worker has to pay some of their wages to whomever gave them the job. Or perhaps well connected and better educated workers will edge out existing poorer workers.

I don’t wish to be unduly negative – as I said, putting pressure on retailers to raise standards is a good thing – so long as it doesn’t lose workers their jobs. I think we agree on that. It’s just that the kind of legislation you propose is tricky, for these sorts of reasons (above), and I’d be interested to hear how you propose to tackle these difficulties.

18. Luis Enrique

This is well worth a read: “Are wages in Africa too high?”

“Endorsed already by thousands of people, the campaign demands the UK government guarantee workers supplying UK companies basic rights, like a living wage and the right to join a trade union.”

God damn it will you idiotic if well meaning hippies stop making the same fucking mistakes all the time!

The last time there was a boycott of the sweatshops over child labour the kids ended up selling their arses on the street corners so they could earn enough to eat. OK, so you seem to have got that message.

OK, now what happened the last time we imposed UK derived safety and working condition legislation on factories in poorer countries? Anyone? Bueller?

No? You don’t know? Well perhaps you better had before you crucify yet more people with your idiocy.

http://www.euro-know.org/europages/articles/bslal300.html

“There is of course a historical parallel from 19th century India, when as one economic historian has put it, there was an agitation against the newly developed Indian textile industry by “ignorant English philanthropists and grasping English manufactures” who petitioned the Secretary of State for India “to apply British factory legislation en bloc to India so as to neutralize the ‘unfair’ advantages which the Indian mill industry was enjoying because of its large scale employment of child labour and long hours of work”. The Factory Acts of the 1880’s were the result, which to this day continue to hobble Indian industry. ”

In fact, the Indian textiles industry entirely fell over at this point which was the very purpose of imposing the legislation. The Bradford (and such northern places) mill owners were getting concerned at the fact that the Indian factories were not only replacing British exports to India, they were beginning to export into other markets as well, even back to Blighty. So, what to do? Kill them off by placing the same non wage cost burdens upon them as existed in the vastly richer Britain of the time.

I always thought you War on Want excresences were well up on your Marx. It was him that said that history repeats itself, as tragedy, wasn’t it? So why don’t you learn some damn history so you can avoid fucking over millions with a repetition of earlier idiocies?

Damn, weasel felching would be an honourable profession by comparison.

Try learning something before trying to change the world with vapidities thought up between bong hits!

putting pressure on retailers to raise standards is a good thing

I’m skeptical that the amount of consumer pressure that can be drummed up through blogs and campaigns will be able to compete with the draw of unlimited amounts of virtually free labour.

So if anyone is serious about applying this pressure, I suggest that legislation is pretty much the only to do it. That’s not to wave away the problems of framing it correctly.

Tim, can we establish that your take on classical liberalism sees child-labour and sweat-shops as completely unavoidable, that any attempt to mitigate the horror of it will only create worse problems?

“Tim, can we establish that your take on classical liberalism sees child-labour and sweat-shops as completely unavoidable, that any attempt to mitigate the horror of it will only create worse problems?”

No.

“Tim, can we establish that your take on poverty sees child-labour and sweat-shops as completely unavoidable, that any attempt to mitigate the horror of it will only create worse problems?”

Yes.

The solution to poverty* is wealth creation and interference with this process will lead to other and worse problems.

* Yes, come on now, we’re talking about *poverty* here, not *relative poverty* or inequality. This is the real, destitution, do anything however scummy or you starve poverty. To which the only solution is indeed wealth creation.

I call that splitting hairs, given the world we live in, but ok. So you are what this guy calls a “vulgar libertarian”.

Certainly wealth creation is the solution, I get that. But it doesn’t follow that every single piece of regulation is a mistake – that literally is an argument for legalising child prostitution.

Isn’t there a trade off between wealth creation in the long term and appalling exploitation in the short term?

I, for one, find it entertaining (for “aaaaaaaaaagh” values of entertaining) that *exactly the same* measures that were Terrible Bad Imperialist Things To Cripple Indian Industry And Enrich British Mill Owners are also The Only Way To Deal With The Appalling Sweatshop Problem.

can you explain how you will decide upon a living wage? How would the living wage you’d like to see paid by garment manufacturers in Bangladesh compare to the prevailing wages in other jobs?

Jeez, not that hard is it? Paying them the average perhaps? Soemthing better than slave labour?

It’s quite easy coming here and sneering at “hippies” Luis but first you didn’t read the article and missed the point they are not calling for a boycott, and second you don’t have an answer yourself

The OP acknowledges this is a difficult issue. Hence putting public pressure on these companies looks to be the best way. I for one will be boycotting Primark for a start because they’re not going to change unless they start feeling it at the till.

This is the real, destitution, do anything however scummy or you starve poverty. To which the only solution is indeed wealth creation.

Or perhaps better standards. India has created a lot of wealth over the last decade but most of it has gone to the richest… there are still millions who work for near nothing in extreme poverty, helping others get richer.

“So you are what this guy calls a “vulgar libertarian”.”

Well, given that he singles out the ASI blog, where I write, and I’m a Fellow at the ASI, then obviously, I’m what *he calls* a vulgar libertarian.

However, not by the logic he uses: which is that such vulgar libertarians are apologists for the owning classes.

I oppose stupidities like the ones in the post not because Primark will make less money as a result. I couldn’t give two shits for the level of their profits. I oppose such measures because they will make the poor sods who work in the sweatshops worse off. Which (even if I am wrong empirically, which I ain’t) is at least the right moral lens to be viewing things through.

Indeed, it’s why the ASI used to give away wrist bands (when such things were popular and yes, they were made in a sweatshop) reading “I buy things from poor people in poor countries” because that’s one of the things that will help the people and the country cease being poor.

“But it doesn’t follow that every single piece of regulation is a mistake”

I’ve not said that. I’ve said that this one is. As it was the last time we tried the same thing.

“Isn’t there a trade off between wealth creation in the long term and appalling exploitation in the short term?”

Yes, that’s my point. By insisting on ending the exploitation right here right now (by this method) we damage the long term wealth creation.

“Jeez, not that hard is it? Paying them the average perhaps?”

Snigger: you want the sweatshops to lower their wages? They already pay more than the average that the same people can get elsewhere: that’s why people work in them.

“Or perhaps better standards. India has created a lot of wealth over the last decade but most of it has gone to the richest… there are still millions who work for near nothing in extreme poverty, helping others get richer.”

Jeepers, get a grip will you? Hundreds of millions in India have risen up out of that scummy destitution and poverty in these last few decades to something approaching a middle class lifestyle. That and China between them are the largest reduction of poverty ever in the history of the human species.

This “neo-liberalism” shtick (actually, it’s straight old Adam Smith) of the division of labour, specialisation and associated trade of the production is doing exactly what it advertised on the tin. It’s creating wealth which is reducing poverty more effectively than anything else that anyone has ever tried, anywhere, anywhen.

It works which is why we should be doing more of it.

It looks to me that you and the author of this post are viewing things from the same moral lens, at least.

“Isn’t there a trade off between wealth creation in the long term and appalling exploitation in the short term?”

Yes, that’s my point.

That’s everyone’s point. The problem is that it isn’t true: we don’t have a trade-off, we simply have appalling exploitation. Ok you don’t like this idea – any alternative, more economically literate suggestions?

Snigger: you want the sweatshops to lower their wages? They already pay more than the average that the same people can get elsewhere: that’s why people work in them.

Not necessarily. Due to high unemployment in those countries they are most likely working for a pittance because they have little alternatives.

We’re not talking about what *you* would pay a factory worker, but what average wages in cities would be. It’s highly patronising to assume Banglsdesh, India et al are just full of villages where people survive on next to nothing.

hat and China between them are the largest reduction of poverty ever in the history of the human species.

Yes, and that only happens due to improved working standards. Without that they could be paid the same pittance they were before.

China really isn’t the greatest exemplar of “don’t just do something, stand there”.

“Not necessarily. Due to high unemployment in those countries they are most likely working for a pittance because they have little alternatives.”

Err, that’s what I just said.

“Yes, and that only happens due to improved working standards. Without that they could be paid the same pittance they were before.”

Rubbish. As Paul Krugman keeps pointing out (and he is indeed a Nobel Laureate and the prize was indeed given for his expertise and research into international trade) average wages in an economy are determined by average productivity in an economy. As the latter rises so will the former (in a market economy anyway: and you can find Marx agreeing with you there on both those points too.).

Demanding “higher standards” does not raise wages. Indede, if you start demanding higher standards in hte form of more holiday, more sick pay, safer working conditions and so on these will lower wages, not raise them.

34. Left not Liberal

So Tim, leaving aside your highly dubious empirical arguments for the time being, what aspects in your moral defense of acquiescence to the hyper-exploitation of children would not apply with equal force to a defense of child prostitution?

“hyper exploitation” eh? Nothing like loading the argument with emotional freight, is there?

As I’ve noted above, the last time someone tried to get the child labour kicked out of sweatshops the kids kicked out did end up in child prostitution. As I tend to think that a child working in a factory is less awful than child prostitution (anyone care to disagree?) then I support that possibility of children working in a factory because it is less awful than the alternative which will be, for at least some of them, child prostitution.

Now, would I like there to be more options? You know, decent schooling, three squares a day and a loving and stimulating home life as an alternative for these children? Sure, let’s get on with creating it. That means creating wealth for it is only wealth that creates such opportunities.

36. Luis Enrique

Peter B,

Settle down now. I am not sneering at hippies (I think that was Tim). I did read the article, I didn’t miss they weren’t calling for a boycott, I did write something about boycotts that didn’t fit under this post, a mistake I acknowledged (that was me addressing the representative “sweatshop campaigner” in my head, rather than what Jess wrote).

I don’t think setting a “living wage” is easy. Your suggestion was to legislate that garment manufacturers in Bangladesh must pay a wage equal to the average wage (let’s say the median) across the economy. As Tim points out, it’s entirely possible that sweatshops already pay a wage at or higher than the host country median wage – see research on that I link to #15. Regardless of what you find “patronizing”.

Presumably your objective is to achieve a significant increase in wages paid by sweat shops. So, how large an increase do you choose to impose via legislation, and how do you pin it down? I do not think this problem is “easy” – there’s the effect on employment levels to worry about, plus the other consequences I mention, most pressing of which is probably changes to who gets the jobs once they become so much better than other jobs on offer. The fact that you find it easy to answer “paying them the average perhaps” suggests to me you just haven’t thought about it.

Setting wage controls in general isn’t easy – relative wages change all the time as different sectors expand and contract, or experience technological change, and there’s no reason to expect relative wages (the garment wage compared to other wages) to be the same across countries. Perhaps in some countries legislating that garment manufacturers must pay a wage equal to the economy average would wipe out the industry, in others it would equate to a pay cut. Picking the “right” wage would be hard enough for one country, let alone imagining UK legislators could design something to identify a fair wage for garment workers in 100 LDCs.

I think the only way the Fairtrade organization can do it, is that they have a benchmark (say, the world price for coffee) and can then say “10% more than that”. But if the whole world became fair trade, how could they set the “fair” price of coffee.

37. Left not Liberal

““hyper exploitation” eh? Nothing like loading the argument with emotional freight, is there?”

Hyper-exploitation is no more loaded than any of the terminology you use. It merely denotes that the children’s employers make large profits from their labour power. Hardly controversial is it – they’re only employed because they are incredibly cheap and expendable after all.

What I wanted from you was a moral defense of your justification for the hyper exploitation of children – notably by asking you which aspect of your defense could not be argued with equal vigor in defense of child prostitution. You didn’t address the question, instead you persisted with your pseudoscientific economic arguments (“wealth creation”, now there’s a value laden expression hiding behind the façade of scientific objectivity if ever there was one).

The reason I asked Tim is that in your defense of child labour there does not appear to be any limit on the extent to which children are exploited in the service of “wealth creation” (read capital accumulation here) that’s why I’m asking you in what sense your moral argument does not apply with equal force to child prostitution. I’m not interested in your Hayekian bullshit, I’d like you to address this more fundamental concern.

As I tend to think that a child working in a factory is less awful than child prostitution (anyone care to disagree?) then I support that possibility of children working in a factory

Don’t knock child prostitution, Tim, it’s less awful than child soldiering, or medical experimentation. The point is things can be less awful than other things and still be very awful indeed. You’ve acknowledged the existence of a trade-off between short term and longer term interests, but failed to make any comment at all about whee the balance should be or how it could be altered.

It’s not just children in factories. It’s extremely young children in extremely poor conditions, for extremely long hours, and extremely little money. I would say that is an unacceptable high price to pay for the promise of jam tomorrow.

39. Luis Enrique

sorry to butt in Larry…. but if there was a credible argument that attempting to curtail child prostitution would lead to something even worse happening to those children, then I might be arguing against attempting to curtail child prostitution. I only argue against attempting to curtail sweatshop badness to the extent that I think those attempts could lead to something worse happening to workers you are trying to help – this is an empirical question. As far as I can see, the arguments being made about sweatshop workers could be made equally for child prostitutes, so I don’t see the strength of the argument “oh, so you’d say the same about child prostitutes, would you?”.

Perhaps it is the case that in some countries outlawing child prostitution (or enforcing those laws) would lead to some children starving to death. If that was the case, I’d reconsider the wisdom of enforcing those laws, wouldn’t you? Obviously I’d want to get to a situation where there are no child prostitutes and nobody starving to death, and if it was possible to ban child prostitution and stop them starving, I’d choose that option. The same sort of thing goes for sweatshops.

If I thought that sweatshop legislation would lead, on balance, to better lives for the poor of the world, I’d be all for it. If I could see an argument whereby the legislation would might make things worse for the poor in the short run but better in the long run, I’d be all for it too (if the trade off is favourable). But then that’d be you selling jam tomorrow.

Tim, is this your position too?

“It merely denotes that the children’s employers make large profits from their labour power.”

They do? Really? You know what the profit margins in sweatshops in Bangladesh are do you?

“What I wanted from you was a moral defense of your justification for the hyper exploitation of children ”

Anyway, I reject the very idea that employing someone is to exploit them. Sorry, but I simply haven’t swallowed that Marxist bullshit. The labourer gets a higher income by being employed alongside capital than they would be working in the absence of capital. So it’s just as true to say that the labourer is exploiting capital as it is to say that capital is exploiting labour.

“to be any limit on the extent to which children are exploited in the service of “wealth creation” (read capital accumulation here)”

No, you’re betraying your Marxist idiocies again. Wealth creation is not the same as capital accumulation. If we move a resource from a lower value use to a higher value one then we have engaged in wealth creation. That’s it, tout court. We don’t have to blather on about the misconceptions of a 19th century German at all. It was all entirely and satisfactorarily explained by an 18th century Scot.

“I would say that is an unacceptable high price to pay for the promise of jam tomorrow.”

So, we don’t have jam today and we won’t have jam tomorrow then either? Look, the reason that poor children in poor countries have shitty lives is because they are poor children in poor countries. A shitty life is what poverty means. The only way out of it is for the economy to develop, for it to add more value, so that there is (leaving aside the insane nonsense about “capital exploiting labour”) more wealth so that fewer people are shit poor.

I’m not saying that child labour is some inevitable stage that an economy must go through, I’m not saying that it’s good, necessary or worth it for economic development to take place.

I’m saying that right here right now those children either work at something or they die of starvation. Yes, it’s shitty, it’s appalling but that is the way that the world currently is. What we all want to do is get away from that, to a situation where happy children do indeed gambol in the streets as they come home from their exciting day learning the three r’s and making plasticine snakes.

The question is: how?

Given that the problem is poverty then the answer must be the eradication of poverty. No, not throwing kids out of the factories so that they starve: that will indeed solve *their* poverty permanently but that’s not really quite what we’re after is it?

There’s even been a rather large study which shows us (one way) that this might be achieved. This.
http://www.grida.no/publications/other/ipcc_sr/?src=/climate/ipcc/emission/093.htm#1

The A1 family. It’s one of the economic models that is then fed into the IPCC’s climate change models. No one around here is going to say that something like that, something which we are basing the entirety of the future of the human race (hyperbole alert from Mr. Monbiot there), is not thought through now, are they?

That A1 model is essentially globalised capitalism. And poverty, this sort of child labour poverty that we’re talking about, is entirely abolished in that model via the only method possible: the creation of wealth.

So let’s get on with it, eh?

41. Left not Liberal

Wow, it’s not often that you get arguments for the legalization of pedophilia, but there you go. That’s precisely where this sort of crude technocratic cost-benefit analysis gets you. These reductionist arguments of child abuse vs starvation & child exploitation vs starvation really do suffer from the poverty of fatalism. What they ignore is the extraordinary capacity of human beings to bring about positive change for the better. Why do people think that there are no longer sweatshops and child labour in this country? It’s not simply because of “wealth creation” in which the working population were merely passive recipients (in Tim’s reified world outlook human beings are merely vexatious appendages of capital) it was because people got themselves organized and demanded change.

Of course there would have been equivalents of Tim in those days saying “don’t demand better conditions – you’ll only hurt yourselves in the long run (I’m exploiting you for your own good!)”. I suggest that progressives, socialists, democrats etc should respond to such arguments, in the same way that people in those days would have done (basically telling them to fuck off)..

“Why do people think that there are no longer sweatshops and child labour in this country?”

Because we’re rich of course.

QED.

43. Luis Enrique

… and as people have got richer, organized labour has pressed for better working conditions.

let’s hope this happens in Bangladesh too – and some help from Bangladesh’s export customers could help. But there’s a difference between helping ratchet up working conditions, and wading in thinking you can set the right wage from 4000 miles away.

You must remember that Tim Text book will not be happy until workers are actually paying their employers to work for them. He believes in the total unfretted race to the bottom for workers.. And the sooner the better in Timmy world

As far as I can see, the arguments being made about sweatshop workers could be made equally for child prostitutes,

Could they Luis? Might the Adam Smith Institute hand out wristbands saying “I fuck poor children from poor countries”?

See there are two questions here – the empirical, legal one you mention, about whether something can be done about sweat-shops. The less important one, which is clouding the issue, is what we think about the people who run sweat-shops.

I appreciate that some sappy lefties think the latter question should dictate the former. But it looks to me as if the reverse of that is also true.

I might be persuadable that nothing can be done about sweat-shops, because any attempt to do something will be counterproductive. But it would certainly help if the people making that case didn’t think that running a sweat-shop is just a fine and dandy way to make a living. On that question I’ll concede that it’s morally preferable to pimping out kids, but that’s about as far as I’ll go.

46. Luis Enrique

Could they Luis?

well, just to be clear, only in so far as in both cases one could potentially make a “don’t make things worse” argument; but if the fact of the matter is that cracking down on child prostitution wouldn’t make things worse, but some proposed attempt to crack down on sweatshops would make things worse, then I wouldn’t be making the same argument in both cases. On the basis that we can be fairly sure cracking down on child prostitution won’t make things worse, hold fire on those wrist bands.

I’m not trying to argue that “nothing can be done” about sweatshops, I’m only expressing concerns about UK legislators trying to do things like stipulate wages in overseas garment manufacturing. For what it’s worth, I should think the thing most likely to “do something” about sweatshops in most countries is the arrival of more sweatshops, competition for labour, higher wages, perhaps organised labour activisim, legislative reforms in the respective countries, and, hopefully, the whole happy process of economic growth. I wouldn’t suggest this is inevitable in every sweat shop hosting nation.

As to the morality …. well that’s a thorny one, ain’t it? The wages and working conditions experienced by workers in poor countries, working domestically with no contact with global trade, are frequently terrible (and as claimed by research linked to above, frequently worse than in so called sweat shops). I presume you wouldn’t want to call all operators of domestic businesses in poor countries just one moral grade above pimping out kids. Why should the moral status of business owners change as soon as they start selling to Western importers?

Whatever the prevailing levels of wages and working conditions are in a given poor country, domestic and exporting sweatshop, some owners are going to be bastards relative to other owners, and I share what I imagine are your views on them. But it’s not obvious to me that all the owners of factories that export to the west are bastards, if the pay and conditions they offer are similar (or, as research suggests, slightly better) than what goes on elsewhere in that country.

What of the morality of Western firms that buy from sweatshops? If they seek out the bastards, well they’re bastards too. But if they buy from businesses that offer workers the same or better wages and conditions that prevail in the country in question, I think there’s a case they are helping people in that country (creating jobs tightens the labour market and each new entrant should move wages in the right direction), and I don’t think that people who help people (even out of self interest) in poor countries deserve the moral opprobrium you suggest.

[I wish I could find the cross country research I have in mind, but there are case studies, like Vietnam and I think Mauritius that show I’m not just spouting crap about sweat shops leading to poverty reduction, by the way.]

Luis, you are the internet’s most reasonable man, thanks for your comment.

It is an irony of the free market system that fairly disreputable or even downright nasty people can actually end up doing more good for people than “do-gooders”. I understand that it doesn’t track ethical intuitions very well, but I think it is actually one of the advantages of it.

Basically, I think we need to separate out where the real ethical problems lie. The problem isn’t the sweatshop. If someone who was wealthy decided that they enjoyed working 80 hour weeks and just worked really hard for the hell of it, then few people would consider that an ethical problem. The problem is the situation around the sweatshop. And that is lack of wealth which is usually accompanied by a lack of other things, like access to justice systems and property rights.

This is why it is no good for market liberals to say “well sweatshops are better than nothing”. They may be, but if they exist in a situation where alternative options for employment or economic growth are limited by a lack of sound institutions or bad or corrupt institutions, then it is not as if we can sleep soundly. The exploitation is in the fact that people’s options have been artificially limited to working for some government-licensed globally powerful companies. So we need to push for a much deeper reform in these countries rather than just hoping that free market rights respecting institutions develop via osmosis.

As far as I can see, the arguments being made about sweatshop workers could be made equally for child prostitutes

Only if the child prostitutes had made the decision to work as child prostitutes themselves, and were above the age of consent.

Although in that case we would probably not consider them to be child prostitutes.

(And if they had not made the decision to work as prostitutes themselves, and had been forced into it by others, I would consider that a campaign to get them shorter working hours or higher wage rates was rather missing the point.)


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