Having worn the ancient jeans to shreds, I recently bought some replacement from a retailer with a long-term code of ethics.
When the factory collapse occurred in Bangladesh, I checked the label again and – gulp – confirmed that they were indeed made in that country. Can this company’s compliance managers be expected to have really done their job in ensuring fair and healthy working conditions for their suppliers’ workers?
The problem with today’s consumerism is that people buy new stuff constantly and throw them away when they’re still practically new, adding to the mountain of waste. In the meantime, natural resources from the water and good soil needed to grow the cotton for the clothing to the metals and rare earth elements needed to make the electronic gadgets run out. And yet we’re told the world’s economy has to be propped up by consumption; that China, for example, can’t keep growing unless it stimulates domestic consumption.
So what we have is a system finetuned to produce goods at maximum efficiency and lowest cost, whatever the cost to the workers or the ecosystem. Note that the aim is not to provide employment, but to drive ever-growing profit.
You could have 100 workers making good-quality clothing, at a rate of, say, 50 pieces a day, because they are attending to every detail themselves, or you can have 100 workers arranged in a production line, assembling fast fashion at a thousand times that rate. The first set of workers are too slow though, so the amount they make won’t turn a great profit. The approach therefore has long been to break up a product into a thousand different manufacturing processes to be sub-contracted to different factories so that more can be made by extremely bored and poorly paid workers assigned to repetitive tasks making the buttons, the zips, the sleeves, etc, in such quantity that higher profits can only be generated by brainwashing consumers into believing they must constantly get something new.
Sub-contracting only ever works where specialist knowledge or skills are needed on an irregular basis. For example, certain industrial plants require ducts that must be welded by specialist welders to ensure the joints have the integrity to cope with the plant’s critical operation reliably, so it makes sense for the contractor building the plant to sub-contract the job of assembling those ducts to a team of specialist welders.
Where the input of knowledge or skills is needed on a regular basis, sub-contracting is just a means of exploitation. For example, every residential building is more or less the same, but contractors typically sub-contract most of the tasks to others in order to keep their payroll down. It’s no accident that the more reputable contractors are those who invest in direct labour. So, does it make sense for a telecommunications company which needs a team of maintenance workers to regularly service customers’ connections to “outsource” its maintenance work, or for a container terminal operator that needs crane operators on a daily basis to have them work for contractors instead?
I once bought a pair of trainers that were made by fairly-paid workers in Portugal using natural materials. They were quite a few times more expensive than the average sweatshop-made trainers, but they’re of sufficiently good quality for me to be still using them today. Unfortunately, price alone doesn’t always translate into better treatment for workers; it can – and in Hong Kong always does – mean higher rent, while the workers responsible for making them still get paid a pittance.
For as long as rampant sub-contracting is practised around the world, the wealth gap will just widen more and more. Hong Kong’s Gini co-efficient, by the way, is now up to 0.509 (see Census & Statistics Department table below, from their “Household Income Distribution in Hong Kong” report.