1.1 Claiming connections: a distant world of sweatshops?
Many of the smaller branded goods on sale to consumers in Europe and North America – the latest in clothing and footwear or the smart toys and electronic gadgets on offer – are made in factory ‘sweatshops’. Found in the backstreets of modern, Western cities, but more often than not a feature of the poorer parts of the world, factory sweatshops are an integral part of today's global economy. Increasingly, as you can see from Figure 1 , they are to be found in East Asia, in parts of China, Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand, but they are just as likely to be located in Mexico and Central America, and on the Indian subcontinent. Goods that require little in the way of technology or expensive investment, are suitable candidates for sweatshop production: a term which takes its name from the working conditions under which such goods are produced. As these are primarily places of small-scale, flexible manufacturing, sweatshop workers – mainly women, sometimes children – are commonly subjected to long working hours, forced overtime and a relentless pattern of shift work. Wages are often below subsistence level and the working environment is frequently unhealthy, dangerous and sometimes intimidatory. Job security is largely non-existent and those who protest their exploitation or organise in response to it are likely to lose their jobs, often without warning. Similar things have been said about work in call centres in some countries, although not to the same degree or extent. Workers in factory sweatshops often have to endure poor working conditions and few commentators go out of their way to deny such a state of affairs.
Click to view a larger version of Figure 1 (map).
A question that is worth asking, then, is given that many people in Europe, North America and other wealthy contexts benefit from the lower prices afforded by sweatshop exploitation in faraway places, should we involve ourselves with the fate of such distant workers? Or are we, quite simply, too far away to care?
Campaign groups, such as Oxfam, the Clean Clothes Campaign and various trade union organisations, have long argued that consumers should be involved and they have achieved considerable success in recent years in making the link between sweatshops ‘abroad’ and the benefits reaped by consumers ‘at home’. Through a mix of highly charged media campaigns, boycotts and protests, such groups have used the labels of the big ‘brands’ – companies such as Nike, Gap, Puma, Adidas and Wal-Mart – to make their geographical point: that the daily hardships suffered by sweatshop workers in places such as Cambodia and Indonesia to produce goods for the already privileged should concern us. In a globalised world, they argue, there is a connection between what we wear every day and the poverty wages behind the label.