Social entrepreneurs and sweatshops

Posted: August 12, 2012 in Consumer campaigns, Site announcements
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[These were my comments at a screening of two documentaries, Behind the Swoosh and Tejid@s Junt@s (“Stitched Together”), held at my alma mater UTS on Thursday night. The two films are included as embedded links]

My name is Michael Walker, I am an alumnus of the UTS Law and Social Sciences schools and am now working for a union just one block from this building. I am also the author of the blog Fair For All dot org.

To begin tonight, I’ll briefly explain what Fair For All is about.

Unions, including mine, have over the last century improved living standards in this country out of sight. To earn the cost of a loaf of bread, a shop assistant of a hundred years ago had to work for two hours. Today: only about five minutes.

When you walk into a shop you don’t have to be too troubled about the working conditions of the employees … not usually anyway.

What you should be troubled about is the working conditions of the unseen people making the stuff on the shelves.

In decades past – take Darrell Lea Chocolates as an example – in decades past the workers in Darrell Lea shops were protected by the Shop Award safety net. Workers in the Darrell Lea factory in Ramsgate, which is just down the road from my house, were protected by the Factory Award safety net. Delivery drivers were covered by the Transport Industry Award.

This is still how it works in Darrell Lea. Those three awards guarantee a reasonable rate of pay and conditions of work for everyone making Darrell Lea chocolates, including rest breaks, sick leave, four weeks of annual leave, and overtime payments.

In the last thirty years or so, this has become the exception rather than the norm.

Contrast that with Masters Home Improvement.

Masters opened up a very large store out near Narellan just before Christmas last year. If you walk through, you will be hard pressed to find any goods made in Australia whatsoever.

The products sold in Masters are mostly made in factories in Asia – very often by people who are not paid enough to support a family, who are docked their pay if they are sick and who are often working exposed to hazardous chemicals. Because their regular rate of pay is so low, they work long hours of overtime, often 70 or more hours per week, to provide for their families.

They do all this to make our t-shirts, our jeans, our sneakers, our phones and our iPads.

These people, who feed and clothe the world, deserve the protection of basic labour standards, regardless of where they live.

So Fair For All is my project to raise awareness about the crucial need for improvement. It’s not part of my day job; the union I work for is essentially a mutual society for the benefit of its members. It’s not an NGO and it doesn’t exist to roam around solving the world’s problems, so Fair For All is something I work on in my own time [see related post on national self-interest].

So, how do we feel about this? As consumers we are all participating in an unjust system, whether we like it or not.

We are all participating in an unjust system, whether we like it or not.

It’s true that the problem is big and complicated and has no easy solution but that’s not to say that we should throw up our hands and say that nothing can be done.

Tonight we are going to view two short films about people who have done something about it – college students in both cases. Many of you here tonight are college students and I think I can assume because you are here that you don’t need persuading about this issue and want to do something yourselves. Sit tight, we’ll come to that at the end!

Also on your seats you will find a pamphlet for the Playfair 2012 campaign [the pamphlet can be downloaded here], which has been shining a spotlight on the working conditions of sportswear makers in the lead up to the London Olympic Games. The campaign co-ordinator from the global garment and textiles union has kindly agreed to join us by Skype during the break between the films. She is actually in Geneva – fortunately it is only about 11 o’clock in the morning there!

This first film we’re going to watch, Behind the Swoosh, is about conscientious objection and the power it can have if done effectively. One athlete refused to wear the logo of a sportswear maker associated with sweatshops until it cleaned up its act, and his stand has had a large impact at his college and even on the company. Beyond that I’ll let it speak for itself.

One thing this film brings home is how tenaciously companies will fight to protect their brand. They will stare down strikes if they can but they will not allow their brand to be trashed without responding.

This is what Playfair2012 is striving to do. Playfair has the same agenda as Team Sweat: ensure that workers are:

  • paid enough to live on,
  • provided with ongoing rather than short-term employment contracts, and
  • allowed to establish and join trade unions without being victimised

This second film we’ll see takes a different approach altogether. It is about Alta Gracia, a former sweatshop in the Dominican Republic that has been reopened as a workplace that pays its employees a living wage and – and this is the most important bit – connected to a reliable market for ethical apparel. Alas, it’s not enough to rely on people’s goodwill to pay above-market prices, you need to supply them with something unique [see related post].

I took the liberty of touring the UTS gift shop earlier. As expected, the branded apparel is made in China. Nothing wrong with it coming from China per se, it’s just that this tells me that no one has ever pressured the university over its apparel procurement.

Ethical procurement policies are not all that difficult to have put in place, it’s been done successfully down the street at the University of Sydney. Two Victorian campuses are completely Fairtrade. Dozens of American universities source from Alta Gracia.

So why not bring them to UTS too?

  1. marksolock says:

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  2. […] Social entrepreneurs and sweatshops 12 August 2012 […]

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