Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Nightmare Before Christmas

In 2015, British retailers took in over £24 billion (roughly $30 billion) during the Christmas period alone, more than the entire GDP of countries like Nepal or Honduras. This spending craze is linked with advertisement and the increasing consumerism. To cope with this, workers are forced to endure inhumane treatment, working excessively long hours for unethically low wages, in unsafe conditions, facing verbal, and often physical or sexual abuse. All in complete violation of their fundamental human rights. There is the grueling monotonous life endured by millions of factory workers across the world, to meet the increased consumer demand of the Christmas shopping period.

The imagery of cheerful elves making gifts in Santa's workshop is far from the reality and contributes to hide from our sight the conditions of workers in the factories that make what we so enthusiastically buy. Some 80 per cent of the world's toys are manufactured in China, with just about every popular children's toy bearing a 'made in China' label. The harsh reality is that long before Christmas songs are blasting from every department store in the West, these 'elves' who are in fact, real, living Chinese workers, are forced to work around the clock to churn out millions of products, ready for arrival in western stores for the festive season. In the UK alone, Chinese toy factories serve a market worth of £2.8 billion ($3.53 billion) a year, yet the big brands for which these products are made -- including Lego and Disney -- pay factories only a fraction of the shop price, with the social and environmental costs not reflected in the price of these toys. Exploitation is the only term to adequately describe this phenomenon.

Sweatshop labour is not limited to toys, also including electronics and apparel. Topping many Christmas wish-lists are Apple, Amazon and Samsung gadgets, companies all found to be complicit in worker rights violations within their supply chains, in the company of notable high street brands such as Nike and Topshop. Samsung has come under criticism for exposing their workers to toxic chemicals and for their 'no union' policy in Asia, and Apple for working conditions that have forced workers to suicide. Conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo end up in more than 50 per cent of all battery powered equipment.

Christmas consumerism undoubtedly fuels sweatshop labour, but to place blame on consumers is misguided, landing us in the old trap of blaming individuals for a problem ultimately systemic. For many consumers facing stagnating wages and increasing product prices, the mainstream goods are the most, if not only, affordable options. Arguments that sweatshops increase gender empowerment for women who work in factories, or increase the wealth of individuals previously impoverished, fail to accept one harsh reality: in some places sweatshop employment is akin to slavery. Benefiting while wronging is exploitation at its core. On the other hand, to abandon the global industry in favour of only 'buying local' or accepting the existence of sweatshops as an 'escalator out of poverty', is to abandon workers in the Global South. Many workers have been made to work in sweatshops because they have no alternatives for making a living.

It is the [capitalist] structure that leaves workers with poor 'choices', if any, that must be questioned. We need to show solidarity. The best approach to the injustice of sweatshops is to support the unionisation of workers, highlight the resistance from workers themselves, and provide opportunities for their voices to be heard, supporting campaigns for better wages and conditions, despite their often slow and incremental progress.

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