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Quaker work on ethical trade

On 2nd August 2011, a Britain Yearly Meeting session considered the issue of Economic Justice. Quaker Peace & Social Witness staff member, Suzanne Ismail made the following contribution. You can listen to the introductions to the session.

Friends, I have been asked to talk to you about the work Quaker Peace & Social Witness does on your behalf to promote ethical trade. I hope also to show how our individual economic choices have global consequences. And that we all have power to make those consequences positive.

All too often, people who produce goods we use on a daily basis, do so in appalling conditions. Many of you will have heard stories that give testimony to this.

Stories that tell, for example:

  • Of the thousands of young women working in the textile mills of Tamil Nadu. Lured by promises of training, accommodation and a bonus to pay their marriage expenses, they sign contracts tying them to an employer for several years. But effectively this is a form of slavery. No matter how badly they’re treated, if a worker leaves the scheme early she won’t get the bonus. For many of those who do stay to the end, the money still fails to arrive.
  • Or of the Bulgarian woman who works at home stitching shoes. For each pair she gets about half a Euro. To support her family, she has to work 90 hours per week. The work is irregular. Sometimes there’s lots and she has to stay up all night. Sometimes there’s none and that means no income.
  • Or even of the workers discovered last year in a Leicestershire garment factory, being paid just £2.50 per hour. Less than half the national minimum wage of £5.93.

So what is QPSW doing about this?

For the last ten years we’ve been members of the Ethical Trading Initiative. The ETI is an alliance of trade unions, Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and companies. Its mission is to improve the lives of workers like those I’ve just described.

This isn’t easy. Modern supply chains are amazingly complicated. A retailer could, for example, place an order with an agent, who might contract a manufacturer to make it. But that manufacturer may only assemble the product from components sourced from around the world. This means that sometimes retailers simply do not know the full origin of the things they sell.

How can retailers find out about abuse within their supply chain?

And what should they do when they find it?

The ETI is a forum where questions like these are discussed, solutions sought and put into practice.
QPSW’s role is to be a ‘critical friend’ to companies that go down the ETI route. We scrutinise them to ensure that they’re putting their promises into practice. And we seek to ensure that their action supports the most vulnerable. We don’t expect companies to be perfect. But they must demonstrate that they’re changing workers’ lives for the better. If they can’t, we challenge them to do more. Continued failure can result in expulsion from the initiative.

In all of this, I see myself as your eyes and ears. The work is an opportunity to influence global supply chains from the perspective of Quaker values. And to encourage the just economic relationships that are a necessary component of the peaceful world we seek.

Much of the work is slow and frustrating. But, it does work.

Thanks to an ETI project, four thousand homeworkers in Uttar Pradesh are better aware of, and more able to insist on their rights. They have received training that has helped them stabilise their income. Their work is now officially recognised, meaning they can access social security benefits previously denied to them.
Another plus is that companies are examining their business practices to understand whether these are undermining working conditions.

One company that sells seasonal gift packs has made radical changes to its sourcing practices. It used to change gift containers frequently and was constantly changing suppliers. This meant it had very little leverage to insist workers were treated well. Now it uses a limited range of basic containers, only changing minor details like colour or embellishments. As a result the ‘churn’ of suppliers has been reduced by around 80%. The suppliers have more security and can better plan their production schedules. This makes it far less likely that workers have to put in long hours.

But despite successes like these, conditions for many workers remain poor. It’s vital that we move beyond these islands of good practice into the mainstream.

You’ll notice today that I haven’t mentioned any company names. That’s deliberate. I don’t what to single out individual companies as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. What I can say is all the examples I’ve given are linked to well known names on our high streets. I would hazard a guess that almost every one of us has bought something from them. I know I certainly have.

So this week, as we are exploring how we need to change the way we live to sustain the world we live in – I hope we will think about how our economic relationships connect us to others. And I hope we will consider what we can do to make those relationships more just.

These are big asks. And I’m afraid I have no easy answers Friends. What I can do is share reflections about what might help.

Part of the answer must lie in our testimony to simplicity. Our economic system is driven by a consumerist society where retailers strive to keep up with the latest trends at the lowest possible price. This is a major factor in workers being abused. It’s also a major cause of environmental harm to our planet.

But for the workers whose stories I’ve relayed today, us simply opting out of the global consumer society is a risky strategy. It could throw millions out of work and make precarious lives even harder.

For me, we must also engage with the global economy, and make sure that we are informed, active consumers. That might mean buying less. It must mean buying better.

What does this mean in practice?

Firstly I think it means that we need to think before we buy. We need to ask ourselves whether our purchase is really necessary, and what message our decision sends to ourselves, to others and ‘the market’.

Secondly, we need to be mindful of those who produce the goods we use or consume. Do we know anything of how they live or work? If the answer is no, does that make us feel uncomfortable?

Thirdly we can be active. We can write to shops or speak to store managers asking how they safeguard workers rights. Or we can look out for and take part in labour rights campaigns.

And fourthly we can be reactive. We can use media exposes about workers rights as opportunities to talk to others about the underlying issues. We can contact the companies concerned and ask them how they are going to respond.

I know many Friends are already doing things like this. But many of you tell me that it feels like lonely work. You don’t know if it makes a difference or if retailers take any notice.

Please take my word for it – it does. 20 years ago, it was almost impossible to get retailers to accept they had a responsibility to the workers in their supply chain. Now, largely as a result of continued campaigning it is the norm.

Of course the challenge is to ensure that this is accompanied by genuine and more widespread change.
That’s no easy task Friends, but the effect of us acting together does give us power. Much more than we might at first think.