Primark is rightly being exposed over the use of child labour in the finishing of cheap clothes. But as evidence against retailers stacks up, shoppers are kidding themselves if they don't shoulder some of the blame, says Dan McDougall.
The key question behind sweatshop investigations into major corporations like Monday night's Panorama special on Primark is abundantly clear: do consumers, the UK shoppers who spend billions in the High Street, truly care where their £4 hand-finished blouse comes from? The answer, to the shops at least, is yes. And it is reflected in the growth of ethical sourcing policies led by firms like Marks and Spencer.
A decade ago the duties of a corporation were almost exclusively focused on one thing: profit.
Now, though, corporate social responsibility appears to be in the ascendant. Episodes such as the Enron boardroom scandal and exposés of retailers' reliance on child labour, like the one I carried out into Gap Inc last year, have forced companies to be more open and honest. They do this because they believe the consumer cares about where his morning coffee comes from or the shirt he puts on his back before going to work.
"Transparency" has become the watchword, and the mere mention of sweatshops now makes clothing manufacturers such as Primark or The Gap anxious.
Transparency is what Gap displayed in response to revelations about their production process and what Primark claims it is trying to do by firing three of its key Indian suppliers in the run up to tonight's Panorama documentary. To its credit, Gap admitted the problem, sought to fix it and promised to radically re-examine the working practices of its Indian contractors.
But increasingly it is consumers, and not the corporations, who have the biggest role to play in the fight against exploitation.
"The public has a major role to play in the fight against child labour," says Bhuwan Ribhu, of the New Delhi-based Global March Against Child Labour, which leads the campaign against under-age working in the sub-continent. "They need to learn more about who makes the products they buy, and support organisations with programmes to stop child labour. Raise funds, join campaigns and talk to friends to make more people aware of the seriousness of the issue."
"What happened with Gap and now with Primark should be a key indicator to all consumers. The sad reality is many major retail firms know, but don't dare to admit, what outsourcing to India means. Employing cheap labour without successful auditing and investigation of your contractors inevitably means children will be used somewhere along the chain."
This may not be what shoppers want to hear, Mr Ribhu concedes, "as they pull off fresh clothes from clean racks in stores".
"But consumers in the UK should be thinking this: why am I only paying £4 for a hand embroidered top? This item looks handmade. Who made it for such little cost? Is this top stained with a child's suffering and sweat? That's what shoppers need to first ask themselves and then go to their favourite stores and ask for assurances that it is not the case."
Journalist Lucy Siegle, a leading authority on consumer ethics, believes UK shoppers have a conscience but are somehow fooled into believing goods are ethically sourced.
"Most consumers would be horrified if they found out that anything they owned had been made in sweatshop conditions or through child labour, or both," says Siegle, who writes, as I do, for the Observer. "It is simply not true to say that they don't care."
However, it seems people forget those thoughts when they go clothes shopping, she believes.
"There is a disconnect between what people care about and how they stock their wardrobes. Why? The value retailers have sold themselves as democratisers of fashion. Ostensibly the consumer is taught to think we've never had it so good - really fashionable clothes, so cheap as to be disposable."
"Collusion between the High Street retailers, the consumer and the glossy mags with all their 'dress for less' features means that has anaesthetised most of us from the murky, circuitous supply routes of international fashion and the demands [this puts] on garment workers in say India or Bangladesh."
"Until this magic spell is broken, the consumer will keep shopping and giving the impression that they're not bothered. The knock-on effects of this - for consumers - are that our wardrobes are bursting with redundant fast fashion (two million tonnes of textiles are dumped in the UK every year), without us knowing anything about its origins; there's nothing on the label apart from washing instructions. We continue to block uncertainty out of their minds."
Lucy, like many experts in the field, believes the BBC's investigation into Primark should now act as a watermark; a line in the sand for both retailers and customers:
"We've had 12 years of excuses from retailers and manufacturers, this now has to change. It is a massive consumer issue.
"We need to know the real trade-off. If retailers say they can provide clothes for nothing without abusing basic human rights and exploiting workers, we should start asking for some real proof of these rather strange economics."
But if shoppers are slowly starting to wake up to the horrors of child labour, developing world suppliers are more determined than ever to keep the prying eyes of foreigners away from their units. My experience in reporting such stories in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka shows they are even willing to resort to violence.
Whilst carrying out an undercover investigation for the Observer last year I was badly beaten in a sweatshop in the lawless Haryana State border area of northern India pursuing the story.
But I got off lightly compared to the fate of some others, says Bhuwan Ribhu.
"We have lost a number of activists, murdered in the course of their duties, others have been dragged in chains behind cars and had threats made against their families. A lot of money is at stake here and life becomes cheap in such a desperate and greed-filled environment. Remember, above all, the money that is creating this desperation comes directly from the wallets of Western consumers."
Dan McDougall is a foreign correspondent with the Observer. Panorama's Primark: On the Rack is broadcast on BBC One on Monday 23 June, at 2100 BST. Or catch up using the BBC iPlayer .
Update September 2011: This article has been amended after the BBC Trust upheld a complaint from Primark about this programme.
Below is a selection of your comments:
It is really quite simple. Any goods that are produced outside the EU should have to prove that they were made to standards at least equal to the minimum employment conditions (that is conditions not necessarily wages) specified and regulated to EU conditions BEFORE they are given an import licence. That way EU jobs are not exported to sweat shops which should then cease to exists. This helps every level of the procedure and encourages those third world employers who do provide decent conditions of employment.
So what guidance do we have when it comes to shopping for clothes if reputable concerns like Gap and Primark have been found to use unethical labour? There is Fair Trade clothing around, and its best to find "end-to-end" fair Trade manufacture not just Fair Trade Cotton. Otherwise, the only way is to ask for an assurance from your supplier.
Peter, Cheshire, UK
Of course there is the intelligent vocal consumer, but we are overwhelmed by the masses who simply buy what fashion or their peer group tell them to! If people are so uneducated as to buy and feed themselves much of the muck that supermarkets call food, how are they going to be persuaded to make an informed decision about labour conditions 5,000 miles away. Especially when it means paying £10 rather than £2!
Simon Mallett, UK Lenham
I, for one, am very troubled by this story. I do not care to buy any product made by abused people or people who weren't paid a fair wage. Please note these garments are easily identifiable - the fabric has not been pre-shrunk! It is labelled "Cold water wash only" because the employees were not instructed/paid to wash the fabric first. It shrinks multiple sizes the first time it is washed.
Lilly, NYC, USA
I do not support child labour but we should be able to consider other point of view, (ie allowing children to work under certain guidelines) and if it is not against the norm or law of the host home country, nor stop the child from going to school, I will be reluctant to call it child labour. It indeed might be a life skill for the child not just in economics, but in practical skills (imagine the neat pattern on the piece of clothe), what about the extra income for school uniform or the stipend for the family. Again, let's not all jump on the bandwagon of criticism, using our own yardstick to measure other economies.
Emmanuel Feyisetan, Gravesend, Kent
It is something that all companies should aspire to, Marks and Spencer's has always treated suppliers and staff with respect. Unfortunately being forced to move their manufacturing abroad because customers just want cheap items for the High Street, someone always has to pay. Consumers have a big part in playing to give people in the Third world a better life. Please everyone shop ethically.
I don't really mind if children make the clothes I wear. They should get paid the same as the adults or better give the jobs to their mums, dads, aunties and uncles at the reasonable wages to bring up their families. Or even better, bring the jobs back into this country to our textile industry.