It is a disturbing truth of twenty-first century western society that we have convinced ourselves we live in a fair world. Sure, there’s some inequality in our lives but, for the most part, we all do okay: we have labour-saving tools, there are lots of television channels and almost everybody has a mobile phone. There is relative poverty, granted, but very few people are really poor and there are safety-nets in place for the vulnerable in our society.
How, then – while we carp and complain about the inequity of the bonuses paid to the undeserving bankers and others – can we consider it acceptable that we continue to wear and consume products which are manufactured or farmed by child labour, or which have been produced in sweat shops in the developing world? Sure, we in the west have the option to buy Fair Trade, but that is somehow considered to be a luxury – and a luxury to us, the consumers, no less – rather than the norm which one might have hoped that it ought to be.
At what point was it deemed acceptable that we might feel comfortable living on the fruits of the labour of the enslaved? We tell ourselves that slavery has been abolished in the modern world and yet we still employ it today, we just keep it out of sight and out of mind.
Most people, understandably, want to provide the best that they can for their children, and somehow this almost always seems to translate into designer clothes, the latest toys and the most up-to-date gadgets. Consider this: you are probably giving your kids items made by other kids who are working in order to feed themselves or their families. Children in West Africa are still trafficked and sold on to farms where they work twelve or more hours a day to grow and harvest cocoa for chocolate. How sweet does that taste to you now?
Think back for a moment: were those sleigh-bells we heard jingling last Christmas or was it the sound of the distant jangling of chains? Nothing has changed and we have not advanced at all as a society, we have just become more adept at lying to ourselves.
Manufacturing that is “more economic” overseas is often only able to be cheaper because it involves dealing with an economy which is based upon the servitude of the impoverished, so dealing with those nations in any way tacitly supports that exploitation. Laws are put in place to stop the abuse of child and immigrant labour in this country, so how can we, in all conscience, continue to consume goods which are produced in workhouse conditions abroad?
Alan Turing, who is widely regarded as the father of modern computing, committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide. This tragic testimony to the shameful intolerance of western society (go and look it up if you aren’t already aware of the facts) is commemorated in some small way by a certain multi-national company, through the techniques it utilises in the production of its electronic devices (to be sold at iWatering prices) in factories in China: employees in tablet and mobile phone manufacture have suffered exposure to toxic materials, poisoning from n-hexane (very unpleasant: it damages the peripheral nervous system and ultimately the spinal cord, leading to muscular weakness, atrophy and even paralysis) and even injury and death in explosions caused by the build-up of aluminium dust. Meanwhile, suicide attempts by other employees were addressed by installing safety netting in workers’ dormitory blocks – who said big business doesn’t care? When working conditions at one plant were improved, thus leading to an increase in production costs, the company responded by moving its operation elsewhere. It isn’t alone, either: a great many big names in electronics are equally guilty of neglecting employee welfare. And you’re supporting them, whether you know it or not.
One might have expected to see western governments legislating so that goods may not be imported unless the conditions under which they are manufactured meet with generally accepted levels of remuneration and guaranteed health and safety conditions – but, of course, politicians and business leaders continually tell us that establishing and maintaining trade links with less developed countries helps to open the world up, benefitting people in both our countries and theirs. This is a lie. What it does do is deprive people in our own countries of employment opportunities whilst continuing to finance oppressive and exploitative regimes elsewhere in the world. Where we can’t see it.
Isn’t it time that we boycotted products from companies which abuse workers overseas until they are paid fair wages and given the same protection that employees in the west enjoy? Or is it more important that we all have sharp threads and cheap mobile phones?