Opinion: British politicians’ apathy towards sweatshops

British politicians are happy to criticise domestic employment practices, but say nothing about the conditions of workers internationally.

Mitya Pearson is studying for a Masters in Politics & Contemporary History at King’s College London.

Chris Bryant’s claim – and then subsequent back-track – that Tesco and Next employed cheap immigrant workers over British staff showed the Labour Party’s willingness to criticise the employment procedures of major domestic companies. In the week before this Chuka Umunna expressed concern over news of a proliferation of ‘zero hours’ contracts among companies such as Sports Direct and McDonalds arguing that this is ‘not the way Britain should be competing in the 21st Century’.

Labour politicians are keen to involve themselves with companies’ employment policies if they treat British workers unfairly. This should be commended, but it is in complete contrast with the apparent apathy in mainstream politics towards the conditions of workers internationally.

While not wishing to trivialise or ignore domestic employment concerns, the working conditions and employment policies of some firms internationally are indisputably far graver. Research by the organisation War on Want shows that millions of garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh ‘are forced to work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week’, in unsafe, cramped and hazardous conditions, where sexual harassment and discrimination is widespread and the formation of trade unions is blocked at every turn by management. Politicians and individuals alike are fully aware of this awful picture and of similar situations across so many developing countries. So why is this barely considered relevant to mainstream British politicians?

After all, there is no shortage of politicians wishing to show their support for the foreign aid budget. David Cameron has spoken of how ‘proud’ he is to provide foreign aid and Britain’s commitment to ‘not turn our back on people who are trusting us to help them’. Labour’s shadow international development minister Ivan Lewis has set out how ‘Ed Miliband and this new generation of Labour politicians are determined to build on their proud development legacy’. Arguably, there is a political consensus around our moral obligation to help those less well off in foreign countries. This manifests itself in support for an aid budget but stops short of seriously questioning international corporate practice.

In June, Alan Duncan, Minister of State for International Development, was moved to call on UK clothes retailers to ‘assume responsibility’ for factory conditions in Bangladesh and pledged £18m in funding for skills and safety training in the country. However, this only came in response to the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April of this year which left over 1,100 people dead and approximately 2,500 people injured. The collapse took place in a factory supplying clothes for outlets including Primark. It is remarkable that it takes a tragedy on this scale for British politicians to pay attention to the plight of workers overseas. It should always concern us that UK and Western multinationals are running a system which forces men, women and sometimes children into work in horrendous conditions for scandalously low pay.

I am not suggesting that any party should come out tomorrow and promise to eradicate sweatshop factories, or spend all their time denouncing them. Clearly this is a massive, complex, global issue. I am not demanding British politicians pretend they are able to completely eradicate it. However, the current approach of ignoring such widespread injustice is equally as misguided. It is undeniably odd to have a situation where everyone is aware of the horrible conditions people work in, feels a certain level of guilt about this, but balks at seriously pursuing international corporate responsibility. It is also inconsistent to do so while simultaneously either criticising domestic employment practice or extolling your pride in giving out foreign aid.

In Britain, as in other developed nations, we have a clear moral obligation to do what we can to help those in developing nations; this is accepted in mainstream politics. It should not, however, be seen to be satisfied purely by pledging aid and there should be a concern for working conditions and company practice both domestically and abroad.

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