Thursday, 29 January 2009

Ethics of outsourcing: not just Tesco's problem

In "Keep ethical trading in fashion", a letter to The Guardian newspaper, veteran radical lawyer Benedict Birnberg raises concerns regarding leading UK retailer Tesco's plan to launch its own-label online clothing store, as reported in Drapers. While recognising the attraction of this proposal for Tesco customers he writes:
"My concern, however, is with its outsourced garment workers in the developing world. Following War on Want's Fashion Victims report in December 2006, based on research in Bangladesh, and with the publicity generated by your publication of a letter from me, as a Tesco shareholder I was able to move a resolution at its 2007 AGM mandating the company to pay its workers a living wage; 20% of shareholders either voted for the resolution or abstained".
After citing some chilling figures drawn from a fresh War on Want investigation, he continues
"... the culture of fast fashion changes and aggressive buying practices of UK retailers put extreme pressure on suppliers, and hence workers, to produce more garments in less time; not surprisingly, War on Want found that Bangladeshi workers work up to 80 hours a week and most worked 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, well in excess of the official standard working week.

In the global downturn, UK retailers who maintain employment in the developing world are to be congratulated. But not if the price paid means such gross exploitation of their workers. I challenge Tesco to abide by its Ethical Trading Initiative obligations to pay its outsourced employees a living wage".
Fashionista notes that the ethics of outsourcing, like the economics of the fashion industry itself, have a global dimension to them. While Tesco competes with other retail and online fashion traders in the UK and its other market, poverty-stricken Bangladesh competes with other economically disadvantaged nations for the right to secure the outsourced work; within Bangladesh itself the garment workers' employers fight to secure the right to supply the Tescos of this world, knowing that harsh local employment conditions and a vast pool of available labour will help ensure that even the meanest contract remains profitable for them. While Tesco and its shareholders recognise the problem, and War on Want describes the reality which results from it, the solution requires more focused attention and more resolve than any one trader can bring to bear.