Wednesday, 18 July 2007

UK MP’s consider legislation to force employers to pay a ‘living wage’

A group of MP’s is calling on the government to introduce legislation to force UK companies to pay their overseas staff a ‘living wage’ and give them employment rights and protection. The MP’s want UK firms to offer their staff around the world the same kind of rights UK workers are accustomed to. This follows a report by the Guardian that highlighted the working conditions at factories in Bangladesh that make products for Asda, Primark and Tesco. Some of the workers earn as little as 4p an hour and are forced to work up to 80 hours a week. The workers reported instances of abuse by supervisors and sackings for being off work when sick.

These kinds of practices are outlawed in the UK, yet UK companies allow their suppliers to use such exploitative practices that they border on slavery. The government and retailers point to the Ethical Trade Initiative, which is a voluntary code of practice with guidelines of 48 hour working weeks, maximum 12 hours overtime and a living wage, but this is clearly not working.

I know retailers are in competition, and at the lower end of the market, price is the main attraction for shoppers, but at what cost to the people that make the products?
We in the UK and the rest of the developed world can afford to pay a fair price for everything we buy. We do not really need to exploit the world’s poorest people so we can save a few pennies on a pair of jeans. At the higher end of the market, where clothes can be extortionately expensive, is it really necessary to exploit the workers? When a pair of jeans can cost over £100, is it right to pay the workers something like 10p an hour?

Like many of the government’s voluntary codes pf practice introduced to allow companies to self-regulate, they simply do not work. It should be pretty obvious to anyone that in a commercial organisation the primary motivator is making as much profit as possible. Workers’ rights, especially workers that are beyond UK law, are an irrelevance. Surely the only reason UK companies outsource work to third world countries is the low production costs involved, one factor of which is the low wages they pay the workers. The only way workers’ rights can be improved is through government action and legislation to ensure UK companies apply the same rules to workers abroad as they do in the UK. Ideally there need to be legal minimum standards for all workers that are applied across the world.

[Via The Guardian]

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