Cheap clothing and sweated labour – Martin Gemzell from War on Want

10:18 Tuesday 21st October 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: We were talking earlier this morning about the EU wanting to ban some of the pesticides that our farmers use, which would make probably some of our produce a lot dearer, although one farmer said no, the supermarkets will just import it from elsewhere where they’re still using it. But it might make some of our produce dearer. Vivienne Westwood, British fashion designer of course, got a shop in Wansford, says she believes the clothes in Britain that we wear are too cheap as well, and we ought to think about where they’re coming from. Stop buying cheap clothes, then people wouldn’t have to work in sweat shops around the world. Well let’s talk to Martin Gemzell from War on Want who’s over in Hong Kong as we speak this morning. Martin, good morning.
MARTIN GEMZELL: Good morning. Or good afternoon.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes, good afternoon for you of course. You’re way ahead of the game. If we pay more money for our clothes, would it really make any difference to those working in sweat shops? Would it really? Or would it just put them out of a job?

MARTIN GEMZELL: Well it depends on if the companies and the big brands who make profits on this pass it on to the workers. That’s the problem today. It’s not that there is not a lot of money being paid for clothes, even if they are cheap sometimes. But the problem is that the companies keep this and make huge profits. So for example H&M, the big Swedish garment company which I know, because I’m Swedish, they just made a net income of £460 million for the last quarter. And that’s more than the entire national income of many countries in the developing world.
PAUL STAINTON: How do we know as a consumer where our clothes are coming from? Do we need to just look at the price tag, and if it’s cheap it’s coming from somewhere it shouldn’t be?
MARTIN GEMZELL: When we buy clothes I think it’s important to also ask ourselves were these clothes produced in factories that allow trade unions for the workers, have some decent chance to defend their own rights and compete in the market. Right now we know very little about the clothes we buy. I think the big brands should be pressured to tell more about the conditions under which their clothes were produced, and also allow for unions and others to inspect the conditions, to verify how they’ve been produced. There is not enough transparency around this. We don’t know about them.
PAUL STAINTON: The trouble is though that they make them because we want them, don’t they? We want stuff cheap. We want our milk cheap. We want our t-shirts for £2.50. And things are tight at the moment. People are hard up, aren’t they? Can we afford our ethics?
MARTIN GEMZELL: Well I don’t think we can afford our ethics, because in the long run it’s not sustainable, this system which is based on some people exploiting someone else. The problem is also that we have a lot of poor people in the UK who cannot afford to buy these cheap clothes. So we need to ask ourselves can we pay workers in the UK a living wage that they can survive on. And the answer is no. And likewise the question needs to be, do we pay the workers in the developing countries a living wage, and the answer is clearly no. Only a couple of weeks ago we had hundreds of workers fainting in Cambodian factories because they were so malnourished. So it’s horrible conditions. And we know from our trade union partners how horrible the working conditions are in the sweat shops. But the consumer who buys the cheap piece of clothes in the H&M shop doesn’t know very much on the conditions in which they were produced.
PAUL STAINTON: So what is the answer here? Because are companies really going to say, well you know what, we’ll make less profits? We’ll pay our workers more, and everything will be tickety-boo. Can you ever see a day when that happens?
MARTIN GEMZELL: Well first of all we cannot accept the system where people are made to work fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, with pay that is so bad that they faint from malnutrition. But secondly, it can also be possible for the companies to be a bit decent. Right now we see the number of strikes increasing, and only last year we saw at least 800 strikes, big strikes, where workers went out on spontaneous strikes when they’d been cheated by their employers. And you know this costs the companies a lot of money, when they lose income because of the strikes. If you had a bit fairer working conditions, and allowed proper trade union work to take place, it also means a lot more stability, which actually, in the long run, can gain companies a lot. They make much more profits if they can rely on production being stable and civilised. Not like now, where (..) barbaric exploitation, where everyone cheats everyone.