The visible discomfort of politicians wearing their “this is what a feminist look like” T-shirts intensified last weekend when the Daily Mail ran a story alleging the shirts were made in ‘sweatshop’ conditions on the island of Mauritius.
With much outraged finger wagging, it complained of workers in Mauritius getting only 62p an hour and sleeping 16 to a dormitory. Given that most were female, the Daily Mail article implied this really wasn’t what women’s empowerment looks like at all.
It’s not. But it is what global trade looks like.
Firstly, the workers’ reported wage of 6,000 rupees (£119) per month is comfortably above the legal minimum wage in Mauritius (roughly 2,400 – 3,200 rupees per month depending on location). In fact it’s close to the average monthly income of all Mauritian women (pdf) (7,000 rupees per month), probably a better ratio than British garment workers might expect.
Secondly, the reported 45 hour week is allowed by all international labour standards codes, even with an additional twelve hours overtime on top.
Lastly, sleeping in multiple dormitories is common practice for garment workers – particularly migrant workers. From the pictures printed, yes they are basic, but they aren’t the worst we’ve seen.
Without a factory visit we can’t be sure, but it seems likely the CMT factory manufacturing the feminist T-shirts would probably pass most ethical compliance audits or – if it failed – not fail by much. We can’t describe this as a “sweatshop”. It’s a perfectly ordinary garment factory of the type that most of our clothes originate from. Yet no-one can deny that there is huge inequality here. Injustice even.
Most of us would definitely squirm at the gulf between the 62p per hour paid to the workers and the reported £45-per-shirt being charged in Whistles. But as we’re taught in the first week at business school, the only relationship between price and cost is that one must be higher than the other. Cost is to be managed as low as we can get away with. Price is whatever the market will bear.
To understand the gap we need to look at the relative negotiating power of a senior buyer in a Whistles London office and an unskilled, semi-literate garment worker half a world away. Both are doing their job to the best of their ability, but there can only be one winner. So what are the solutions?
They are complex, but we can think in two broad streams. The first is to give more power to the worker; better labour laws offering more employment rights of the type we enjoy in the west like holiday time, sick pay, maternity leave and so on. These of course, must be introduced carefully and gradually to avoid labour market shocks which hurt the very people they aim to protect. Unionisation and other forms of collective negotiation have an important role here, too.
The second stream is to change the behaviour of the buyer – corporately and individually. We can encourage a more holistic purchasing strategy; don’t just drive price and lead-time ever lower, but instead think about other ways to secure competitive advantage. Encourage suppliers to improve productivity or innovate.
Explore moving production outside peak periods to reduce pressure on workers. Lengthen rather than shorten contracts to encourage investment in equipment and workers. Train buyers to look for creative and innovative ways to secure the best suppliers not just the cheapest. In the end, much can be achieved by promoting a clearer view of the worker as a genuine stakeholder in the negotiations.
But ultimately this isn’t an ethical problem, it’s an economic one. Changing the outcome requires changing the rules. Systemic problems need systemic solutions, not ethical finger-wagging.
Now that really does sound like a job for the politicians.
Dr Simon Hodgson is a senior partner at Carnstone and author of Buying Your Way into Trouble
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