Sunday 21 November – International Labour Issues

This post was originally written for my Facebook Sunday Notes feature on Sunday 21 November 2010


Proverbs 31v8-9

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the sake of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and needy.


The love of money is the root of all evil

I Timothy 6v10

(let’s say it as it is!)



OK, for my Sunday notes, I have really been thinking that I need to make the Bible more prominent in my notes; otherwise there is the big risk that the Bible will just become a vehicle for my own thoughts.  So from henceforth, I am going to try to revert  back to that, because I am a Christian, and God’s Word is everything to me, and I try to base my entire life on it.


So, there were two obvious contenders for what I should base my Sunday note on today – my personal favourite of “relationships”, and then “tithing” or “money and the church”, following on from last week’s note. Both of these issues are still very much alive in my mind and my thinking.  However, there was nothing really burning in my heart that I should say about either of these topics today; I’m still thinking them through….

And then I caught a glimpse in my news feed of a post by someone from uni, about exploitation in the supply chain for making clothes, from a company that you would least expect this from, and then my sister and I got talking about this, and so I decided that I would talk about this today.  I guess this is a challenge to each one of us, especially to those of us who think of ourselves as devout to some faith or belief-system or the other.  IE not just Christians because I know that many of these questions are relevant to other faiths, and I don’t want people to think they are off the hook because they are not Christians.  For those of us who are Christians I am not trying to put all faiths on the same level; I believe I have demonstrated my unwavering allegiance to Christ time after time and this is not changing that.  I’m just saying that this is something we all need to take responsibility for, and I don’t think anyone has an excuse on the basis of faith…

This is a challenge to myself as much as to anyone else, because I have definitely let myself rationalise about this topic.


Today I’m thinking specifically about clothes, although the same thing could equally be said of exotic fruit or any good or service which is produced abroad in developing countries for a market at home in the developed world. In short, I think we have to accept that on the whole the way we live or consume goods largely tolerates exploitation of workers who produce our goods.  For us to be able to buy clothes, shoes, electronic goods,  bananas at the cheap prices we demand which make these items seemingly disposable or “throw-away” MUST mean that someone somewhere down the line is being exploited on a HUGE scale.  This is obvious right?  I guess we all know this.  I also think that in practical terms this is slavery, that has just been relocated from our doorstep, so it does not really feel like slavery.  After all, I do not personally own people who are catering to my every whim.  And because this all happens in some far away country, I can imagine conditions to be a lot better than they really are; I do not have to take action the same way I would have to  if these conditions existed right in front of me.


I sometimes think about William Wilberforce, and the great changes he made for the abolition of slavery, and I think that looking back on it, of course we all accept that slavery is a dreadful thing and totally degrading to the nature of other human beings.  And yet, at the time, so many people kept slaves.  The loveliest people who were genuinely friendly, kind to animals, loved children etc (like Hitler) – the sweetest, most gracious, most charming people – all kept slaves without seeming to realise what a totally horrific thing this was.  And I have often searched my own heart – if I was in this situation, surely I would be different?  Surely I would speak up, like Wilberforce, work endlessly to see this inhuman practice totally obliterated?  So I look around, and I think  – well is there something I should be speaking up about today? And the two main ones I can come up with are developing world sweatshops, and – hugely controversial, I know – abortion.


(From university forward, I have chosen not to argue any longer about abortion in public because I think it must represent so much pain to anyone who has ever been a party to it – I completely disagree with the practice; I would love to be able to say that for Christians it should be non-negotiable, except when the mother’s life may be at risk – but a medium like this is not the right medium to deal with it.)


When it comes to sweatshops, we are mostly all implicated.


My personal stance – a thought I cultivate at my noblest (ie when I was at uni) –  I don’t want anyone to have to suffer for my ease or my luxury. I cannot bear the thought that someone else should be in pain, just so that I could look good.


And yet, how I have let myself rationalise. How we rationalise – we ourselves are broke, or being exploited.  I have to live!  I’m barely making anything in this c**p job anyway – if I don’t buy this, I would not buy anything.  It was on thinking through this that I finally decided that yes, I would start buying these products (where essential) without any remorse.  However, I’m now wondering whether I let myself off too easily. To be blunt, I think that if you are not earning very much, and these products are all you can afford to buy, then there is little point beating yourself up about it.  Go ahead and buy them.  (She shrugs) I would.  In fact, I do.  However, I think that even in pleading “low wages”, we have to be working to make the change.  The fact is that these conditions exist no matter the price scale of the final product – even in the so-called “luxury” goods market.  Time after time, scandal after scandal just points to the fact that it is standard practice to use sweatshop labour even for the most outrageously expensive and overpriced items.

So what can we as consumers do to change things?  I think it would be fair to say that yes, we too are being exploited, possibly by our own employers, and then also by supermarkets or clothes shops.  However, we clearly have more power to change things than the people who make these items.  There are a number of things we could do – some easier than others.  Now I have a confession, that will be more secret to some people than to others – I can be lazy, and always love opting for something that is straightforward within my reach, than possibly venturing out into the “welcoming” Edinburgh cold… This is something easy.  We could make a list from our regular purchases of items that are essential, that we have to buy to survive, and those that are not essential, then transfer all our non-essential funds to our essential items, and then we would be able to pay more for items that are fairly traded. Or, if our budgets will not stretch to that, maybe we could just buy the essential items, even where sweatshop produced,  for the sake of survival, and sacrifice the others, for the sake of human consideration. Concerning food, it is highly unlikely that there will be an essential item that will not be produced cheaply and accessibly within this country. Bananas eg are not essential, as it is very possible to get the vitamins and nutrients they supply from other fruit and veg – regarding bananas, has anyone else ever asked themselves why this labour intensive fruit (ok technically “a herb”), flown halfway around the world, still manages to be sold cheaper than carrots, grown right here in this country, and traditionally a cheap vegetable – where fruits are generally more expensive than vegetables?


If you want to do more difficult things, then perhaps you could check out organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) or Labour behind the Label – ask Uncle Google!


OK, so I’m suggesting that you could make a sacrifice, but consider that the same fuss I am making now, is the same fuss I would be making if you were the one suffering – and perhaps your perspective on it would be different then.

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