Photo by Claudia Janke of Ethical Trading Initiative.
I finished most of my Christmas shopping yesterday. But this year I felt less morally conflicted about spending so much money on frivolous gifts while so many others don’t even have enough for their basic needs. Because this year I’ve had a revelation, thanks to my new job at Ethical Trading Initiative: virtually everything we buy in the wealthy West is made not by elves, but by someone in a developing country. So everything I buy is actually contributing to someone’s income.
Why shouldn’t this be just as moral as buying gifts from charity shops? In fact more so – I would rather have a job than receive charity, wouldn’t you? Trade tariffs limit exports from poor countries to wealthy ones. Wealthy countries pay their farmers huge subsidies, and then flood poor countries with their surplus produce. If it wasn’t for unfair trade rules like these, more people could work and earn a living rather than relying on charity.
So poverty is not caused by misfortune, but by injustice. As Nelson Mandela put it, “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.” Some question whether aid actually works. Of course, it benefits many thousands of individuals directly but, according to economists like Dambisa Moyo, after 50 years and a trillion dollars of aid, African poverty has increased while in the rest of the world it had decreased. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so.
Sadly, even those lucky enough to have jobs in the factories and fields that make and grow the things that we buy may be poor, exploited and abused. The relentless drive to maximize profit at each stage of the supply chain – from worker to sub-contractor to contractor to factory to agent to the shiny branded store on your high street or shopping mall – can lead to terrible abuses of human rights.
People who make our trendy faded denim jeans die from silicosis because they have no masks to protect them during the sandblasting process. Women strain their eyes sewing millions of tiny beads and sequins onto our clothes and accessories. Children are deprived of an education – and of childhood itself – as they toil in Dickensian workshops to make toys for other children. Hundreds die in factory fires like the recent ones in Bangladesh and Pakistan without proper fire exits and extinguishers. Bonded labor means that there are more people in slavery now – making things that you and I buy – than at any other time in history.
It may be the responsibility of the factory owners or of developing countries’ governments, or even of our own shiny brands to ensure that the people who produce our Christmas gifts are not being underpaid, overworked, beaten, abused, enslaved, poisoned, burned … but they are driven by business imperatives. Though big multinationals may seem all powerful, the one thing they are scared of is public scandal – i.e. of what you and I want.
As long as we demand the cheapest prices, they will deliver them whatever the cost in human suffering. Once we start demanding decent working conditions for workers in the supply chain they will try to deliver that too. In fact many have started doing so through fair trade and ethical trade.
Plus, even big multinationals are made up of human beings: moms, dads, sisters, and brothers, some of whom feel equally outraged at people being forced to work in terrible conditions. Some become ethical trading managers for their companies. Many companies are now members of organizations – like the one I started working for this year – that are striving to improve workers’ conditions around the world.
Today, December 10th, is International Human Rights Day, commemorating the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right of people not to be poor, exploited, uneducated and abused is enshrined in this declaration. We are all responsible for making sure that those rights are protected for everyone, especially those that have made the gifts that you will unwrap on Christmas day.
Post by Sabita Banerji.