Posted by: graemelaidlaw | April 5, 2010

critical thinking

Our lectures this week were on critical thinking and about the history of rubber in the Congo.  The film ‘White King, Red Rubber, Black Death’ was well worth watching.  The history of the Congo, right up to the present day, is a very depressing list of abuses perpetrated mainly from Europe, but also from Arab slave traders who operated in the country.  I had never heard about King Leopold’s private kingdom before, or the abuses that went on in the country.  The fact that Leopold, who died in disgrace and whose funeral procession was heckled, is now thought of as a civilising King who brought civilization to darkest Africa is pretty unbelievable.  The natural resources that should help improve the lives on people in the Congo or Nigeria for example, have brought nothing but suffering and death for the majority of their populations, and enrichement for the few. 

Sweatshops in the 3rd world are spoken of by the corporations who use them in much the same way as the colonies of old.  The argument goes that sweatshop economies enable countries to get on the first rung of the ladder that will lead them toward prosperity, and that every modern economy went through  similar phase in their own development.   I would agree that most countries have gone through this phase in their own industrial development.  In Britain the conditions in the coal mines or textile factories were said to be awful, and large amounts of children worked long hours in these conditions.  In Britain child labour was outlawed by parliament 150 years ago because of the impact that it was having on children, so why is what is deemed unlawful in Europe and the USA ok in developing countries?  I think most people would agree that the pay and conditions in sweatshops should be improved, and that workers should not be abused by factory officials, but apart from this they are not all bad.   An average Honduran working in a sweatshop would be paid 0.5% of the retail cost of the garments they produce, yet the wages are double the average wage in Honduras.  Also when legislation in the USA concerning child labour meant that factories producing American goods could not use children, the children were thrown out of the sweatshops and were forced to work in harder jobs such as stone-crushing or even prostitution, according to a UN report compiled in 1997.  Well meaning legislation in the West rarely works and often causes unintended suffering instead of improvement.  Companies  will not instigate improvements unless their profits are being affected, yet as people have heard about sweatshop conditions for well over a decade, yet we still buy the products; which is essentially acceptance of the situation and complicity, the companies will keep on doing the same thing.  I think Flight of the Conchords sum up the situation pretty well:

They’re turning kids into slaves
Just to make cheaper sneakers
But what’s the real cost?
‘Cause the sneakers don’t seem that much cheaper

Why are we still paying so much for sneakers ?
When you got them made by little slaves kids
What are your overheads?

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