“We Are A Rock Revolving…

13 04 2008

Around a golden sun
We are a billion children
Rolled into one”

Saltwater – Julian Lennon

Last week in my sociology lecture I started to learn about the process of globalisation and how we are all one entity, yet all experience different degrees of inequality. After I came across a definition made by a sociologist, I began to realise how the issues relating to sweatshops are a direct consequence of such a phenomenon.

“Globalisation is the process of understanding interconnectedness between societies, such that events in one part of the world have effects on peoples and societies far away.”
Smith (1997)

This definition certainly can relate to sweatshops, since the removal of barriers in time and space combined with new technology, such as the Internet, has helped to make it easier for transnational corporations (TNCs) to produce and transport goods almost anywhere in the world.

War On Want’s Globalisation in the Garment Sector is particularly good at highlighting how globalisation has had an impact on companies producing goods in sweatshops, since even though the definition made by Smith can be interpreted to mean that the events made by Western companies can affect those in Eastern countries, it can also be seen in another way – Western companies can affect those living and working in Western countries, such as England, too!

I know that throughout this blog I have mainly focused on how the exploitation of workers in Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs) occurs, however in light of globalisation and its impact on the entire world, it is only right to also mention how exploitation in More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs) occurs too.

For one, one must consider that United Kingdom garment sector wages are not high, due to the fact that they are 28% lower for men and 14% lower for women, in terms of the national average wage for United Kingdom manufacturing industries.

Moreover, there seems to be a growth in sweatshops in the United Kingdom. Evidence for this can be seen by a BBC Watchdog programme from April 2000 which explored the lives of women working in a factory producing Olympia garments in Leicester. The programme spoke to a woman who said she had been locked in the factory until she finished her order, and received £2.75 per hour, compared to the £3.70 average. Once the woman confronted her employer she was fired; from this it is right to think that if exploitation in United Kingdom is occurring, then the amount of exploitation that is occurring in other parts of the world is surely greater.

Globalisation – Is its impact positive or negative?
(Copyright: Arabesques)

However is all bad with globalisation? Even though many corporations have re-located from the United Kingdom and other Western countries, the growth of the garment industry has transformed the lives of workers in the developing world. Even though the wages that these people gain may look poor compared to our own, they have certainly represented radical news ways of living, especially for women. Lipi, a Bangladeshi garment worker, has managed to escape rural poverty, has been able to earn her very own wage as well as make independent decisions relating to her everyday life. Regarding this matter she stated: “Before joining the factory I was very timid but now I have some confidence. I’m working in the city and at night I can go out. I even participate in demonstrations sometimes.”

However is it really that simple? Of course it isn’t! Even though garment workers may have a new lease of life, this is only made possible through working very long hours below subistence wages and in conditions which endanger their health.

Another negative impact relating to globalisation can be seen with the process called ‘the race to the bottom.’ Before, corporations could not move around from country-to-country to find the cheapest labour available, due to the fact that this would mean the corporation would have to buy and sell all of their properties, i.e. factories, the machinery, as well as having responsibility to re-locate all of the workers from the factories.

Tin Shacks – The only form of shelter that many Bangladeshi garment workers can actually afford
(Copyright: War On Want)

Through globalisation however, corporations have begun to increasingly use sub-contracts. These contracts are short term and enable the corporations to ask local factory owners to supply the company with only a certain amount of goods. At the end of the contract, the corporation can either create another one, or if cheaper labour can be found elsewhere, then the corporation will ultimately move on and use another factory instead. Using this method certainly means that the corporation does not have to improve the working or living conditions of the employees or raise the wages that are paid to them, due to the fact that they are not fixed to one residence; this is certainly exploitation and unjust!

To put this into context, a typical chain might be the following: a United Kingdom retailer contracts a buyer in Hong Kong to supply an order. The buyer then makes a contract with a South Korean-owned factory in Bangladesh to make the clothes, while the cloth itself comes from Malaysia. This complex chain means that the retailer will never see the factories in which the goods are made.

An inequality in wealth can be seen as another negative side of globalisation. The Garment Workers’ Project has claimed that in the last 25 years alone, the total number of jobs in the United Kingdom clothing and textile industry has fallen from 1,000,000 to around 300,000. The main reason for this can be explained through outsourcing and the massive disparity in wage levels worldwide. In industrialised countries, labour costs may form 75 per cent of the total costs of a garment, while in Bangladesh, the figure is as low as five per cent; the graph below conveys the difference in wages:

(Copyright: War On Want)

Export-Processing Zones can also be regarded as a negative consequence of globalisation. Export-Processing Zones are also named as Free Trade Areas and are used by countries to tempt transnational corporations to source there, all through incentives. For example, the Bangladeshi Export-Processing Zone offers zero taxes, 100 per cent repatriation of profits and exemption from many national laws, such as the freedom to organise trade unions. While these incentives may woo the transnational corporations, they ultimately have a knock-on effect on the actual workers themselves, so what can we do as consumers?

Well, the first thing we can do is to write letters to our local newspapers. The more people that we get to read about this issue, then the greater opportunity for other people to get active and to help out. This can also be the case with writing articles and creating webpages, such as this one!

Secondly, putting pressure onto your local politician can help out a lot. You may think that local politicians may have little effect on international labour standards, however the more constituents that write to them regarding this issue, the greater the chance that they will bring it up in parliamentary meetings, due to it being a ‘hot topic’ issue amount the constituents.

Lastly, put pressure onto the actual transnational corporations themselves! Link up with campaign groups on the Internet, such as War On Want’s campaign, since unified action against the transnational corporations can and will make a difference!