Inside labour: Are women part of our ‘modern slavery’?

Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied.
Terry Bell. Picture: Supplied.

When Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the UN, delivered her powerful Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture in Cape Town last Saturday, she highlighted the disproportionate suffering of the female half of humanity.

And I felt chided for not having mentioned this last week in my column on the ongoing scourge of child labour.

The reality is that women bear the brunt of child rearing and still remain grossly oppressed on a gender basis.

But I admit that I am not overly concerned about how many female CEOs there are.

To my mind, the awful tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh epitomised the systemic horrors of gender bias in the workplace.

On that occasion in April 24, 2013, an eight-storey building collapsed, killing 1 134 garment workers and injuring 2 500 more. Nearly 2 000 of the dead and injured were young women between the ages of 18 and 20.

Working on tight margins and with tight schedules imposed by the likes of Walmart, GAP and other leading brands, factory owners could not countenance delays or increased costs.

Young women, the cheapest workers, were ordered into an already unsafe building, its structure shaken by thousands of feet and vibrating machinery.

Rana Plaza collapsed and it took three weeks of digging to unearth the bodies to make for an official death toll of 1 134.

It was the worst factory disaster in history and it triggered much wailing and gnashing of teeth among trade unions and human rights organisations.

This was accompanied by blatantly hypocritical mouthings from some of the global chains whose products were being manufactured in the building.

It was not their fault, they said.

They had merely placed orders and were unaware of the conditions in which those workers had laboured.

But they were named and shamed and the international trade union movement rallied to secure an agreement about improved conditions and the “ethical” production of goods.

Global brands became more aware that bad publicity about the treatment of workers could impact negatively on their image and sales.

As a result, there has been an increasing tendency among leading companies to stress that their products are produced “ethically”.

A classic recent example is American Apparel that advertises — along with video clips of apparently happy workers — that its clothing products are “Globally sourced, ethically made, and sweatshop free”. But, according to evidence produced this year by the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, that claim is far from the truth.

Most other leading companies, like all the major sportswear labels, continue to outsource production to factories that offer the cheapest price, and this usually means sweatshop labour, mostly by women and children. Here is hypocrisy writ large, as these companies are aware that there is nothing to stop a factory awarded a contract by a global brand from outsourcing work.

Most have to do so since they could not profitably produce the goods at the quoted prices if they did so in their own “ethically approved” facilities.

This amounts to window dressing for global brands ranging from footwear to lingerie, clothing, and a variety of fashionable bling, glitter and electronic gadgetry.

The pressure of competition, especially among major corporations in a world of over production and over capacity, leads to this demand for ever cheaper labour which means more women and children are exploited.

And there exists a tier below even such horror: forced and prison labour.

According to the International Labour Organisation, last year there were nearly 25 million “modern slaves” engaged in forced labour.

In the US, prison labour is already a multibillion-dollar industry.

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