Friday 4 July 2014

Labelling Dissent: The Primark "cry for help" controversy is just one part of a bigger scandal

A fascinating story has popped up in the national press over labelling of clothes in Primark. We're not talking about how the washing instructions have been accidentally changed from "delicate cycle" to "boil wash". This is something altogether more intriguing, and cuts to the heart of the discussion over ethical fashion. 

The basic story is this: Rebecca Gallagher from Swansea bought a £10 summer dress from Primark, only to find a hand-stitched label in amongst the others. The label said "forced to work exhausting hours." Over the next couple of weeks, other Primark shoppers found similar labels in their fast fashion bargains. Primark, caught on the backfoot, claimed that the whole thing was a hoax, instigated in the UK. The altered clothing came from different factories, hundreds of miles apart.

Whether it was a hoax or not is missing the point. The fact is that foreign garment workers do work exhausting hours for terrible pay in terrible working conditions. Drawing that to the attention of the readers of the South Wales Evening Post and later to the national papers isn't a bad thing. The danger, as a sharply written editorial by Tansy Hoskins for the Guardian points out, is that readers and shoppers will assume that it's only Primark that has the problem. It's not. Most of the high street chains have links to factories that carry out abusive or negligent working practices. The struggle for fair pay and conditions in Bangladesh and other centres of manufacturing for Western clothing is one that is going on right now as unions like the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF), based in Dhaka take the fight to the shop floor. Union officials are tired of seeing their members marginalised as helpless victims, and of the attempts to attribute blame to one brand. Tansy points out:

Their opinion is that poor pay and conditions are not unique to one brand (Primark) but rather "applicable to almost all the brands that are sourcing from Bangladesh." The NGWF is also clear that it does not want to see the destruction of the industry through consumer boycotts as there are no other job opportunities for the four million women working in those factories.
They do however want people to work with them to pressure corporations into raising pay and conditions. "People in the UK should ask brands like Primark, Marks & Spencer, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, or New Look – about the reality of their supply chain," says Amin. "They should pressure brands to disclose their suppliers and to sign the Bangladesh accord, and to ensure a fair price of Bangladeshi garments and pay a living wage to garment workers."

That goal is one that we should all applaud, but cutting the tangled web of self-interest and the quest for excessive profit is a tricky task. We as consumers are wrapped up in that web, too. It's good to see that the struggle for ethical fashion is making headlines. But we should not be fooled into thinking that there's one simple solution, or a lone villain pulling the threads.

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