Blog: Cheap labour casts a spell once more

Joe Ayling | 23 April 2008

It's been a hard-hitting week for the apparel industry so far, with the periodic unmasking of the garment supply chain in full thrust.

The bad press started on Monday (23 April), when leading sportswear firms including Adidas and Nike faced the wrath of global trade union body ITUC over what it claims are tough working conditions in China, India, Thailand and Indonesia.

Its fury followed a new pre-Olympics report that said workers producing goods for leading sportswear firms were still "working excessive hours and paid poverty wages". The ITUC quoted one worker at a Yue Yuen factory saying that pairs of workers were having to "glue 120 pairs of shoes every hour" and were "tired and dirty".

Representatives for report authors Fair Play 2008 hand delivered copies of the report to the HQs of companies mentioned, and staged a protest outside the central office of Yue Yuen in Hong Kong.

Adidas reacted by saying the report lacked both clarity and accuracy. It argued that the report made no reference to positive examples or efforts it has made to improving working conditions in its suppliers' factories.

And just as the dust was settling, attention turned to last night's TV, with the first episode of Blood, Sweat and T-shirts aired. The BBC reality TV series features six young fashion addicts experiencing life as factory workers in India.

The four-part series is designed to question their attitudes to cut-price clothing after working in a variety of factories in the country, ranging from a reasonable mill to a stitching factory where workers were pushed to the limits and slept on the floor between shifts. The fashion addicts, meanwhile, struggle to stay awake during shifts and moaned about the temperatures and smells they were exposed to.

Demanding working conditions are a reality in the production of cut-price clothing and the life-blood of the UK high street these days. Just look at Primark, which yesterday posted a 22% surge in profits and has established a 10% share in the UK clothing market - second only to M&S - by offering fashionable items at slashed prices.

Furthermore, Indian workers in Blood, Sweat and T-shirts are humble in their occupation and view the long hours and tough conditions as good opportunity to make a living. As one of the British guys on the show said with great aplomb: "The only people who don't look happy around here is us."

Despite all this, last night's programme brings the issue of cheap labour back into the public eye. Whether the public conscience will be strong enough to change buying habits, rather than putting it to the back of their minds for the sake of a GBP5 T-shirt, is another matter though.

Borrowing from a similar expression in food circles, it seems that most people are willing to "wear the garment, but not make it".

By Joe Ayling, news editor.

Adidas reacts to the ITUC press announcement this week


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