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Supply Chains in Burma

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factoryworker

H&M can say that it’s outraged by finding out its clothes are made by 14 year olds in Burma all it wants to. But when H&M decides to contract out with clothing manufacturers in Burma, it’s doing so knowing damn well that there is basically no labor oversight in that country and that children are going to be doing much of the work. Given that child labor has been the open goal of the textile industry for over 200 years and that the labor conditions of nations like Burma, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh are well known, H&M has no space to claim ignorance or outrage. Or they do have space to claim it because avoiding claims of responsibility and day-to-day control over things like working conditions (not cost or on-time delivery of course) is the central point of the textile supply chain. H&M cares about one thing–cost. So long as they get the clothes for very cheap, the executives are happy. Now, a story like this coming out might spawn some sort of concern precisely because it threatens profit if consumers are turned off, but it’s not like these executives give two whits whether Burmese girls live or die. H&M absolutely could do plenty about this. It could agree to international inspections, binding fines for violations paid by the company, etc. But at least from what I can tell, it is not agreeing to any of this. Nonetheless, American companies are significantly worse and openly callous. The European social climate demands a little more of their corporations on issues like this so there’s a little more hope here than there is for Walmart or Target, who flat out don’t care.

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  • Murc

    Slight tangent:

    You encounter them a lot less now because, well, they’re aging and dying, but there is still a significant chunk of people who whine about “cheap asian crap” and more generally bitch about modern mass-produced items being “shoddy” and “shamefully made.” “I take pride in my work,” they’ll say. “The person who made THIS clearly does NOT.” They also tend to complain about customer service. “The stock boy has no idea where anything is.” “The person behind the counter can’t give me any nutritional information on what I might or might not want to order, what’s wrong with people?”

    And, well. You took pride in your work because you work eight hours a day with other professionals, in an environment where you at least get a bit of respect. Or you worked on an assembly line forty years ago where part of the social contract was that you understood, and were conversant with, what you were making, and where if the shop foreman came and tried to bust your ass during your union fifteen you could laugh in his face.

    People in Asian sweatshops don’t take pride in their work. It isn’t because they’re lazy. It’s because they’re trying very, very hard not to die. Their work isn’t a source of gratification for them, it’s a horrible monstrosity that they only acquiesce to because without it they’d die.

    The stock boy at Wal-Mart doesn’t know where anything is because he’s not encouraged to know where anything is. He’s encouraged to come in and stock shelves for eight hours according to a plan-o-gram. Him taking time to become conversant with his work environment would distract him from that goal, and because he has no worker protections that might lead to him getting fired. He is not given respect, and so does not give it in turn.

    The person working the register at the diner-esque fast casual place you frequent isn’t working at a reasonable rate, with time for amusing and diverting pranks, romances, and shenanigans with their co-workers like you might see on a sitcom. They aren’t conversant with their wares and the nutritional information thereof because they do not have time to be, and because there is no tangible or even psychic reward for becoming so.

    I genuinely feel like the reason a lot of people just don’t give a shit is because in even its fallen state, folks working at middle and upper-middle-class jobs in the states operate under a set of norms that no longer exist for working-class jobs, and especially for overseas labor… but they don’t know that. They think the norms that applied in the world they grew up with still apply to all jobs. And they do not.

    • Kalil

      This is so very, very spot on.

      I’ve had an inside view of phone tech support (applecare, to be specific) via my friends and family, and holy shit is that an abusive working environment – the customers are awful and the management is worse. Very much what you’re talking about: the employees are not given a full set of tools, are punished arbitrarily with little basis on anything they can control, and the customers have no understanding of what support can or can’t do or the impact of their own actions (a single bad customer survey can result in a major pay cut for months – even if that survey is from a customer who corporate policy explicitly prohibits you from helping, ie expired warranty). All of this results in personnel who hate what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for even as they have to continue doing it to survive.

  • Nobdy

    Weirdly I think you are giving too much credit to H&M, Erik. The article you link to suggests that the actual problem H&M had was that the 14-year-olds were working too much, not that clothes were being made by young teenagers.

    H&M said it had taken action with both factories over ID-cards and overtime after being made aware that a group of 14- to 17-year-olds had been working long hours since 2013.

    However, it said in a statement: “When 14– to 18-year-olds are working it is therefore not a case of child labour, according to international labour laws. ILO instead stresses the importance of not excluding this age group from work in Myanmar. H&M does of course not tolerate child labour in any form.”

    The retailer added that the revelation that teenagers had been working long hours at its suppliers’ factories violating international recommendations and local rules was “unacceptable”.

    “Any overtime must be in accordance with legislation as well as our own demands, this is particularly important when it comes to the age group 14-18. If a supplier doesn’t live up to our standards or national legislation we – in accordance with our routines

    I think this is pretty clearly a “Yeah we knew they were using teenagers, and that’s fine, so long as they follow the letter of the law” statement not a “We don’t buy from suppliers who use teenagers and we are shocked, SHOCKED, to find that some of our suppliers have ignored their pinky promises!” statement.

    • Anonymous Troll

      Right. I am assuming that they are correct in claiming that there was no violation of local laws or international laws and standards.

      The post is arguing that Burma should be forced to follow American law, under penalty of economic sanctions.

      I thought that one country forcing a weaker country to follow the strong country’s laws was called colonialism. Not that there is anything wrong with colonialism.

      • It’s nice that you are defending the employment of 14 year old girls under exploitative conditions in the name of anti-colonialism. Certainly the workers of these countries have nothing to say about the matter. Nope, they are just happy as can be.

        The Chamber of Commerce may be interested in you.

        • Juicy_Joel

          Does Burma want a textile industry or not?

      • Nick never Nick

        I totally agree! Luckily, this is a situation in which American law would force companies that sell their goods in America to behave in a certain way. No coercion at all nor colonialism either, these companies are free to fuck off to other markets. And freedom, plus local laws, is what it’s all about.

        • Anonymous Troll

          Yes and no. If you just want the US to be virtuous, sure.

          But if you want to make the world a better place you emphasize multilateral agreement to international standards, supported by international aid (to which the US would contribute generously).

          I don’t want to make the perfect the enemy of the good, but at least a nod towards the sovereignty of other countries and the right to self determination of other peoples would be nice.

          The IMF and the World Bank have done a lot of bad. I’d suggest that at least some of the bad arose directly from the attitude ‘do it our way or fuck off’

          • Nick never Nick

            I don’t understand why you want to make things so complicated?

            International aid is difficult to apply; this issue has nothing to do with the sovereignty of other countries, it has to do with the willingness of companies to sell their goods in the United States. Since Nike wants to — and Americans want to buy Nike shoes — and Vietnamese workers want to make Nike shoes — who is getting hurt if we require Nike to pay them a certain level of wage, and maintain standards in the factories?

            Your argument sounds as if you believe that low wages and substandard conditions are some sort of Vietnamese cultural tradition, that will be violated if the women making shoes get paid more and work in safety.

            Or possibly that they need money and safe conditions, but for some reason the IMF and World Bank should do this, instead of the factory owner. That would be kind of weird.

            • Nobdy

              Implicit in the argument may be that it wouldn’t be economical to make the products abroad if the workplaces there weren’t exploitative. In other words if you have to pay Rajip from Bangalore the same as Bobbie from Worcester, and you don’t get to violate safety or environmental standards, then why not just make the stuff in Worcester.

              I think the obvious answer is that you don’t have to pay people in low cost of living countries as much as you would in fully developed countries in order for the work to be non-exploitative, and besides that this argument has nothing to do with child labor (since there are no countries that ONLY have child workers.)

              There is definitely a tension between working conditions/wages and being an attractive place to do business, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near the tipping point. You can improve the conditions in Bangalore a lot without making it as expensive as Worcester, and in the end nobody truly benefits from the race to the bottom except the capitalists whose money is doing the running.

            • Anonymous Troll

              I assume two things.

              First, if the peoples of Burma thought it was wrong for these girls to do this work, it would be prohibited by Bermese law. Or Vietnamese, whatever.

              Second, if the employment violated some generally accepted international standard of decency, despite local law, it would be prohibited by international standards.

              It is prohibited by neither. Therefore the desire to impose our standards on them (them!) looks troublingly like colonial arrogance.

              • Nobdy

                As we all know, the Burmese government has forever and always enacted the will of the people!

                Do you apply the same standard to the slaughter of the Rohingya? If the people of Burma wanted the Rohingya not to be slaughtered they would enact and execute laws to prevent it.

                It is therefore colonial arrogance to complain when they are killed or trafficked.

              • Nick never Nick

                Except we’re not imposing our standards on them — we’re imposing our standards on American companies selling goods in America. I still don’t understand why Burmese standards can hold sway in America, but American standards mustn’t be imposed on Burma.

                • Anonymous Troll

                  If you can make an argument that preventing clothes made by 14 year old Burmese girls from being imported into the US is the best available – or even just a reasonably good way – to improve the lives of girls in Burma, I might be persuaded.

                  But I don’t know if that is true, it doesn’t seem self evident to me, and I have never seen that argument made here. I haven’t even seen the question raised, rather than simply assumed.

                  But for all I know the alternative for them is being sold into sex slavery or working on shrimp boats or something worse. I don’t know it is, I don’t know it isn’t. And I don’t know that we should assume the alternative is better.

                  The reason not to impose our standards without good reason is respect for them.

        • DrDick

          If it is wrong here, then it is wrong everywhere. It really is that simple.

      • Nobdy

        It’s not about forcing the country to follow American (or in this case European) law, it’s about making American companies follow American law, and keeping them from getting around it by using contractors in nations with fewer protections.

        It’s about preventing race to the bottom behavior.

        NOTE: I’m speaking for myself here, obviously. I think Erik would go further.

        • Anonymous Troll

          I thought it was about making everyone’s life better, particularly including 14 year old Burmese girls.

          I think that goal would be better served by at least some happy noises about respecting other peoples and their right to self determination.

          • Nick never Nick

            Out of curiosity, do you think that child labour laws in the United States should be prefaced by a statement that we respect the rights of children to choose to work, but that we’re going to make it illegal anyway?

            • Anonymous Troll

              No. I believe that we have a right to set uniform standards for everyone in our country. We, through the (imperfect) democratic process, decide how we want to govern ourselves. I am perfectly happy with collective governmental action.

              I just get very cautious, and want to acknowledge the problem, when it is us deciding on behalf of them. I am not sure it is always wrong, but I certainly don’t think that every standard our rule we set for ourselves should be applied to others willy nilly.

              To bring in some philosophy, iI see this as one of the problems with less than universal right to vote. White men shouldn’t be deciding for women and blacks.

              • Nick never Nick

                But what you don’t acknowledge here is that in this situation, one country inevitably decides for the other.

                1) America decides that goods sold within America must be produced using certain standards: America decides for Burma what goods are sold in America.

                2) Burmese goods using slave and child labour are sold in America: Burma decides for America what goods are sold in America.

                For some weird reason you’ve decided that only one of these is acceptable, and it’s the one that leads to slavery and child labour.

                • Anonymous Troll

                  “For some weird reason you’ve decided that only one of these is acceptable, and it’s the one that leads to slavery and child labour.”

                  Slavery? Who said anything about slavery? I expressly limited my concern to situations that did not violate international standards or agreement. I certainly hope that slavery would violate these.

                  Child labor? Isn’t that the question I’m asking, rather than something to be assumed? It is child labor under US standards, but not under international or local standards. The very question I have been raising is ‘whose standards?’ And you are assuming the truth of the answer ‘ours’

          • So let’s listen to how those girls want to improve their working conditions and enact them.

            • Nick never Nick

              Sadly, listening to a 14-year-old would be a disgusting violation of most SE Asian cultural norms. The Anonymous Troll is correct when he assumes that cultural sensitivity here would consist of asking the factory owner what HR scheme worked best for them.

              • ExpatChad

                As a permanent American resident in SE Asia, I absolutely agree. There is cognitive dissonance induced in a liberal yank living here, but it IS what it is.

          • Nobdy

            I think you’re operating under the assumption that if someone signs a contract it makes their life better and that any interference with the freedom to contract makes life worse for both parties. This is an incredibly naive assumption. Much of the time local laws aren’t even as local as you pretend, having been heavily influenced by moneyed interests both domestic and foreign.

            I agree that the U.S. should not be setting domestic laws for other countries, but we can simply say “U.S. based companies cannot sell goods produced from child labor” and let the free market and changed incentives take care of the rest.

            There’s nothing “natural” about our current state of “We don’t care how something was produced (except by slave labor) until that item reaches American shores.”

            There’s no reason for that to be the default.

            • Nick never Nick

              These workers don’t have contracts, not in any sense that we would recognize. Even if the document exists, the legal structure that backs it is simply incomparable to the United States.

              • Nobdy

                Right. But libertarians and semi-libertarians often shrug off any exploitation or whatever through freedom of contract, no matter how unrealistic that idea is in a given circumstance.

                “If working enormous amounts of overtime didn’t benefit the 14-year-old why would she do it?” is the essential question.

                “Let her make her own decisions as a freely contracting entity!”

                • Anonymous Troll

                  If I ever said anything supporting an individual right to contract, I apologize and retract it. I do, however, support a collective right to self government.

                • And if there’s one thing we know, it’s that the Burmese government truly represents the people!

                • Nick never Nick

                  If you support a collective right to self-government, then you should strongly oppose any right of the Burmese government to set labour laws.

                • Nobdy

                  Collective right to self-government is all well and good if the government is functional. Myanmar has had a dysfunctional government for a long time and the current government is far from perfect. I don’t think we can assume they have the interests of their citizens at heart in all regulations and that we should just ignore the plight of the weak members of their society just because their society doesn’t grant them protections.

                  In addition, what about the American right of self-government? Shouldn’t we have the right to ban the purchase of goods created by child labor? Are we obligated to accept any good that someone wants to import, no matter what conditions it’s produced under?

                  If we have no right to demand that our clothes be produced by adults do we also have no right to ban seafood produced by slaves?

                  If ISIS wants to sell clothes produced by Yazidi slaves in the United States do we have to shrug and say “Make room at Wal*Mart!”?

                • And in the case of Bangladesh, which has a sort of functional democracy, the apparel factory owners make up a huge percentage of the Parliament. We know what happens when the workers fight for better conditions–their organizers get murdered. But hey, self-determination! Glad American companies can do nothing but take advantage of the situation for cheap clothing.

  • I don’t see any reason why U.S. law couldn’t require some standard of evidence that child labor is not used in products sold here.

    As long as the companies are competing with each other in a race to the bottom, they’ll do whatever they have to do to stay in that race. And realistically, whether they are thinking this thought or not, they aren’t doing anything to stop child labor if they’re out of business.

  • Nick never Nick

    I just want to offer a bit of nuance to the picture people often have of Asian factory workers leading awful lives — this is based on Thailand, which might be substantially better than Burma, but who knows? My wife’s aunt worked in a Bangkok factory there, and we visited her a couple times in her slum and stayed for a few days; and I know a lot of other villagers who went to work in a factory. At least in rural Thailand, people don’t usually do this to survive; they do it because 1) in a factory you can save a bit of money and 2) the village is really, really boring. My aunt worked harder than the people at home, but she also took vacations down to southern Thailand, saved up money that she gave to temples, and ate a lot of seafood. By going into the factory she gave herself options that the village people don’t have, because they can either work in the fields (which tends to produce no spending money at all) or sleep in hammocks. In Thailand, at least, working in a factory isn’t necessarily a sign of desperation so much as ambition.

    Plus it gets you away from your neighbours. If you’re a woman, that means you get to have sex with a lot less gossip.

    And I totally agree with holding companies responsible for these workers — raising their wages by 50% would be fairly negligible to the end consumer, but make a titanic difference in their lives. There should be safety regulations, and contractual structure. I just want to point out that a lot of them have agency, and choose the work not to avoid starvation, but because it offers interests and perks that village life doesn’t.

    [edit — not implying that 14-year-olds should be working in factories, just a general point]

    • Well, and the point is not to take jobs away from Thai women. It’s to make those jobs better.

      • Nick never Nick

        No, I know — I didn’t mean to imply that I’m disagreeing with your basic point. I just object to the general assumption that every factory worker in Asia suffers a Hobbesian existence. There’s a huge amount of variation, from the people who are virtually enslaved to those are on a sort of hiatus from the village and doing OK. My aunt eventually developed a lung problem from some industrial sulfur chemical they used where she worked, and transitioned into selling coffee outside the factory, then eventually moved home. Any pressure on factories to improves safety conditions and pay is great.

        The Hobbesian industry is the fishing boats . . . and in Thailand, formerly the logging camps, where they used to feed the elephants amphetamines to make them work harder.

        • Anonymous Troll

          Thank you. I think that actual knowledge of the lived experienced and beliefs of others is an absolutely necessary component of respect towards them.

          If it was a factory in the US I would have no problem saying 14?? That is terrible.

          But I am not convinced that either I or Dr Loomis to say the same thing about Burma. Actually, Im absolutely sure I don’t know enough about Burma.

    • DrDick

      This something I have followed and there are an awful lot of young women from rural Thailand working in the south (both in the factories and the sex industry) are subject to huge pressure to do so to help support their families and typically send most of their income back home.

    • bender

      To some extent, New England girls worked in the textile mills in the early nineteenth century for similar reasons. They hadn’t been forced off the farm, but farm life wasn’t so great.

  • expatoon

    NnN is on point regarding factory work in Thailand. It is a ticket out of the idiocy of village life for many young Thai women. Two years ago the government raised the minimum wage to 300 Baht a day (about $10). The factory owners protested but now have acquiesced. Thailand problems are not in the factories but on the fishing trawlers, in the construction work camps, and on the lower rungs of the sex industry (for Thais not foreigners) where the labor force is nearly all Burmese or Cambodian migrants who are paid hardly at all and live under near-slavery conditions. In the past year rulings from the EC regarding fishing trawler slavery have embarrassed the Thai government but they have done next to nothing so far.

  • burnspbesq

    The European social climate demands a little more of their corporations

    H&M is headquartered where, exactly?

    Oh, yeah, I remember now.

    Sweden.

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