Thursday 3 November 2016

M&S Tripped Up Over Child Labour In Turkey

Shocking news came out last week which conflated two of the big issues of our age: child labour and Syrian refugees. More worryingly, it also concerned one of most beloved, and supposedly ethical retailers–Marks And Sparks.

A Panorama investigation that screened last week on BBC1 claimed to show that factories in Turkey were using Syrian children in garment factories that were making clothes for both Marks and online retailer Asos. The refugees were paid less than a pound an hour–well under the Turkish minimum wage–and were paid in cash on the street by a middleman. The show also alleged ill-treatment of the illegal workforce. One interviewee said:

“If anything happens to a Syrian, they will throw him away like a piece of cloth.”

M&S responded to the allegations by saying:

“Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. We are acutely aware of the complexity surrounding Syrian refugees in Turkey. We have a local team on the ground in Turkey who have visited all of our suppliers there. They have also run supplier workshops on the Syrian refugee crisis highlighting the change in labour law and how to legally employ Syrian workers.

“We had previously found no evidence of Syrian workers employed in factories that supply us, so we were very disappointed by these findings, which are extremely serious and are unacceptable to M&S. We are working closely with this supplier to take remedial action, including offering permanent legal employment, in support of any Syrian daily worker who has been employed in this factory.”

The issue with a global supply chain is the difficulty in successfully monitoring and policing it. If a big order comes into a factory that urgently needs to be filled, it's easy to see how a factory owner might use all resources available to get the job done, however unethical it might be. Turning a blind eye as to where their agency labour is coming from could be seen as a necessary evil. It's a worry that the big brands seem to find it so difficult to ensure that this sort of behaviour does not happen in their factories. However, short of constant, unannounced inspections, it's tough to see how they can maintain the standards set out in their fair working practices handbooks.

Sadly, unethical labour has always been a part of the rag trade, and globalisation makes fair trade all the more difficult to develop and protect. Despite their best efforts, no-one is spotlessly clean in this game. As M&S have found out, an ethical standpoint often collapses when it comes to closer investigation.

For more on the story, check out this piece in The Independent.

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