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Garment wages and the Spirit of 1862

Garment wages and the Spirit of 1862

Dear Editor,

Steve Finch says, rightly in my view, that few could doubt the moral case for the current strikes in Cambodia’s garment sector (The Bottom line, September 13).

However, it is obviously not a view shared by those who advocate pure market forces dictating wage levels.

Unbridled market forces as an instrument of economic discipline are generally favoured by groups not immediately affected when they come into play.

It is worth remembering that many senior figures in the finance industry were not so long ago taking full advantage of these forces to make money.

Free-market economics that dictate misjudgment of risk incurs the penalty of collapse and ruin, and, just two years ago, that is what happened to Lehman Brothers.

However, in many other institutions huge bailouts by taxpayers meant staff responsible for failure were not penalised in any meaningful way, nor were those who were supposed to regulate them or make a proper assessment of institutional credit worthiness.

Contrast the fortunes of such people with the position of those at the other side of the world and at the other end of the social spectrum.

The poor young men and women of Bangladesh, Vietnam or Cambodia find market forces being used to justify keeping down wages to what are essentially subsistence levels, and for them there are no bailouts, only dire warnings about the effects on competitiveness if their relatively meagre demands are met.

The Phnom Penh Post has over the years published a number of articles sympathetic to the plight of the typical Cambodian garment worker, and it would, perhaps, be useful to produce a flow chart showing the movement of a garment from sewing machine to clothing store.

It would be interesting to see how costs escalate and the profit at each level. The result should not be surprising, but might give pause for thought.

Recently, on a visit to Europe, I saw a shirt, made in Vietnam, on sale for the equivalent of US$60.

This was probably about the monthly wage of the machinist who made it.

I accept there are no easy answers to raising the wages of garment workers, but I wonder if it would it be possible for very large international clothing companies and retailers to join forces and charge a customer a small supplement specifically aimed at raising the wages of those actually producing the goods.

I know such ideas are often labelled impractical, but Western consumers, at least, are by no means impervious to such methods, and individuals might feel rather more inclined to contribute to the alleviation of poverty in this way than through making a contribution to charity.

We hear a great deal about Tea Parties and the spirit of 1773 these days. Perhaps it is worthwhile remembering the spirit of 1862, too.

At that point the United States was involved in a civil war, which lead to a cotton famine in Lancashire, England, due to the Unionist blockade.

Many English working people, living in poverty themselves, rallied to the cause of the Union after Lincoln said in October of that year that the war was to free the slaves and not simply maintain the Union.

Many Liverpool merchants were anxious that the import of slave-grown cotton be continued, and, on the whole, the ruling classes in Britain, including leading politicians like Gladstone, were pro-Confederacy.

Nonetheless, pressure from working-class movements and organisations like the Union and Emancipation societies ensured that there was no intervention by Britain in the transatlantic struggle.

It was this sense of fraternity between the working people of Lancashire and the citizens of the Union and their joint sympathy with the plight of the slaves that helped ensure the British Royal Navy was not deployed to keep Confederate ports open.

Workers in Southeast Asian garment factories are not slaves but, on the whole, not treated particularly well, especially by companies sailing close to the line dividing investment from speculation.

Perhaps a spirit of ’62 movement would make common cause between people at each end of the supply chain, raising sympathy for the cause of the exploited.

And really a few extra cents on the price of a shirt or blouse is as nothing compared with the privations suffered in places like Rochdale or Manchester 150 years ago.

Michael Hansen
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: [email protected] or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the authors’ and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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