Cheap Labour and Poor Working Conditions: Who really is to blame?

The working conditions and wages paid for cheap goods from developing countries have again been in the news recently. People are quick to vilify businesses that supply such goods in their stores while turning a blind eye to this problem.

Yet, the critics themselves are without a doubt more often wrapped in clothing from suppliers undertaking inhumane practices. The problem itself is nothing new. The critics therefore are just as guilty for the demand of these product and wilful ignorance of the conditions behind their production.

All we want is reliable goods at rock bottom prices.

Well there’s your problem. Thoughts of this nature are no better than Gina Rinehart’s lament over the cheap labour costs of African workers when compared to Aussie workers.

To remain viable, business activities need to undertake cut-throat behaviours. Now forty years into the neo-liberal market, the “consumer” is detached from the realities of production across the board. For instance, seasonality of fresh produce is something long forgotten. Mending, indeed the expectation of a household item simply lasting, are long gone; it’s easier and apparently cheaper to upgrade and replace household items.

This is only true because some poor sap has no other option but to scrape out an existence on a daily wage less than we would spend on a coffee on our way to work.

These practices are so often reported on that no-one can be excused for buying goods ignorant to the fact. K-mart or Apple or whoever the critic wants to pick on today is guilty, true, but so are each of us for the purchase of these goods. Equally, the “designed obsolescence” and the throw away culture make all parties, from production to user, guilty of ridiculously mounting levels of waste.

Personally, I doubt anyone should be so quick to vilify producers and sellers, due to the risk of hypocrisy. Instead, what we need is a movement aimed at overcoming this paradigm. Of course, the alternative could not be as cheap, but it could be more durable and sustainable. It would definitely be more humane and otherwise ethical. Surrounded by growth economy which has evolved little beyond the lessons learnt by an invasive weed, the community of this movement would need persistence too.

If we do not like implicit involvement and thus guilt, we would do better to set a new example rather than trumpet hypocrisy to our personal activities. If business cannot fulfil the needs of the consumer, then it does not deserve the consumer dollar.


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