Roddick targets ‘sweatshop’ shame

By Laura Smith-Spark, BBC News Online, Thursday 15 April 2004, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK

Fuelled by the West's insatiable desire for ever cheaper clothes, millions of textile workers are enduring “slave labour” conditions, activists claim.

Campaigner and Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick, says it is a situation which cannot be allowed to continue.

She is heading a push to “shame” multi-national companies, whose clothing is made in factories in Bangladesh, into demanding fair treatment for workers.

The 61-year-old says only pressure from Western consumers can bring change.

She is part of an international group, including the US-based campaigners National Labor Committee, hoping to stir the conscience of the clothes-buying masses in the West.

“I don’t know if it will work—one hopes it will—but the sweatshop economy is accepted by everyone,” she told BBC News Online.

“It's not an anti-corporate campaign, it's an attempt to put a human right concern into these corporations.”

Companies named

An essay by Dame Anita on the website was the latest barrage in a long-running struggle to win rights for workers.

The Sussex-born entrepreneur says: “We are launching a popular, grassroots campaign to shame the largest apparel companies in Europe and the US into signing a pledge that any worker sewing garments in Bangladesh will be guaranteed her maternity leave with pay.

“The companies that are smart enough to sign up will be listed in our websites.

“Those who refuse will be even more prominently displayed.”

The corporations concerned are expected to be named on websites backing the campaign in the next few days.

From that point on, consumers will be able to make up their own minds whether to buy the firms' goods.

Dame Anita blames the Western corporations who use textile factories in the developing world for putting pressure on local owners, who in turn impose “slave labour” conditions on staff to keep profits up.

“The factory owners say it's driving them crazy because every time a buyer comes from the West they want ‘cheaper, cheaper, cheaper’,” she said.

The activists hope to win ethical treatment for workers one right at a time.

’Life and death’

Dame Anita says: “In Bangladesh, the garment workers have the legal right to three months' maternity leave with full pay.

“Yet, in over 90% of the factories, where women are sewing some of the best-known labels in Europe and America, this right to maternity leave with benefits is routinely violated.

“For the women and their infants this is literally a matter of life and death, since their below-subsistence wages mean they have no savings in reserve.”

Dame Anita, who opened her first Body Shop store in 1976, stepped down as co-chair of the globally-successful company in 2002.

Since then she has focused on political campaigning on human rights issues.

“What amazes me is how we don't have a sense of moral outrage about this,” she says.

“We just don’t look for the human face behind it. We are not educated in global studies even in high schools.”

She believes attitudes to workers' rights need to change worldwide, not just in Bangladesh but in newer markets like China too—and the change needs to come from the West.

Mike Bentley, director of Skillfast-UK, a body working with clothing, footwear and textile businesses in the UK, said: “The textile industry is a highly competitive global business and many manufacturers are fighting to survive.

“Unfortunately where you get this level of competition, you will always get a few employers doing whatever they can to secure a profit.

“However, many UK-based businesses, including Marks and Spencer, do have ethical sourcing policies, and as consumer awareness about working conditions grows, more manufacturers will recognise that an ethical approach is actually better for business.”