Monday, June 23, 2008

Embroidered T-shirt. Price: £4. Cost: Misery

Primark is rightly being exposed over the use of child labour in the finishing of cheap clothes. But as evidence against retailers stacks up, shoppers are kidding themselves if they don't shoulder some of the blame, says Dan McDougall.

The key question behind sweatshop investigations into major corporations like Monday night's Panorama special on Primark is abundantly clear: do consumers, the UK shoppers who spend billions in the High Street, truly care where their £4 hand-finished blouse comes from? The answer, to the shops at least, is yes. And it is reflected in the growth of ethical sourcing policies led by firms like Marks and Spencer's.

A decade ago the duties of a corporation were almost exclusively focused on one thing: profit.

Now, though, corporate social responsibility appears to be in the ascendant. Episodes such as the Enron boardroom scandal and exposés of retailers' reliance on child labour, like the one I carried out into Gap Inc last year, have forced companies to be more open and honest. They do this because they believe the consumer cares about where his morning coffee comes from or the shirt he puts on his back before going to work.

"Transparency" has become the watchword, and the mere mention of sweatshops now makes clothing manufacturers such as Primark or The Gap anxious.

Transparency is what Gap displayed in response to revelations about their production process and what Primark claims it is trying to do by firing three of its key Indian suppliers in the run up to tonight's Panorama documentary. To its credit, Gap admitted the problem, sought to fix it and promised to radically re-examine the working practices of its Indian contractors.

But increasingly it is consumers, and not the corporations, who have the biggest role to play in the fight against exploitation.

"The public has a major role to play in the fight against child labour," says Bhuwan Ribhu, of the New Delhi-based Global March Against Child Labour, which leads the campaign against under-age working in the sub-continent. "They need to learn more about who makes the products they buy, and support organisations with programmes to stop child labour. Raise funds, join campaigns and talk to friends to make more people aware of the seriousness of the issue."

"What happened with Gap and now with Primark should be a key indicator to all consumers. The sad reality is many major retail firms know, but don't dare to admit, what outsourcing to India means. Employing cheap labour without successful auditing and investigation of your contractors inevitably means children will be used somewhere along the chain."

Source @ BBC News

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