What can we do about global corporations that exploit vulnerable workers? Everyone who follows the news knows that products we buy in wealthy countries are manufactured in countries where poor people hope to sweat their way out of poverty by taking factory jobs. Global corporations invest in the third world for cheap labour and because they will enjoy relative freedom from regulation.
The results are predictable. As I pointed out in a recent blog entry, freedom from regulation inevitably leads to unsafe working conditions and exploitation of workers. Typically, the companies that sell us clothes and other products manufactured in the third world contract the production out to companies you’ve never heard of.
Are you familiar with Mölnlycke Health Care of Thailand, Hey Tekstil in Istanbul, All Enterprises in Pakistan, Tazreen Fashions in Bangladesh? Probably not, but you have heard of Walmart, Disney, Dickies, Kmart, and Sears. These companies, and many others you’ve heard of are among the contractors to nameless third world enterprises.
In effect, well-known brands, whose boards and managements care a great deal about your opinion, hide behind no-names. Global power and mobility are their assets; their great liability is their visibility. Clean Clothes, an organization that advocates for third-world workers, exploits that liability with the research needed to expose the names behind the no-names, and subject them to the unfavourable publicity they fear.
To avoid that publicity, global corporations will go to any length. If pressed hard enough, they might even go so far as to ensure reasonable wages and decent working conditions. Supporting Clean Clothes may be our best hope of ensuring that the money we spend on clothing delivers real benefits to the people who manufacture them.