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The Human Cost of Cheap Textiles

Cheap discounted clothes -- trousers, shirts and sweaters at retail shops -- are very popular all over the world not just in Germany. One of the major exporters of these discounted textiles is China. But now a recent German study shows that the workers who are making these clothes have been labouring under severe conditions and that buying cheap means supporting these conditions.

ALDI, one of the largest retail chains worldwide

ALDI, one of the largest retail chains worldwide

The workers in the textile factories often have to work overtime, especially if the contract is from Europe. And this has been happening, as China has become the world’s largest exporter of textiles in recent years and Europe is one of its major markets. Here in Germany, shopping centres and retail shops sell cheap textiles labelled "Made in China". One of the famous retailers offering cheap textiles is Aldi.

But a new study shows that there have been widespread violations of labour laws in Chinese factories, which supply these clothes to Aldi. The study is done by German Süd Wind Institute, which is a part of the Clean Cloths campaign, a group working for the rights of textile workers around the world.

Severe Working Conditions

The institute has done a survey in five Chinese factories and the result is shocking. In many cases, the workers are forced to do overtime and at times the employers withheld wages for weeks. Discrimination is also common at the work place, says Ingeborg Wick, the author of the study:
"In two of the five surveyed factories, the workers had to sneak away from factory dormitories at night, fearing they will not be allowed to quit their jobs."

Inspections and Controls

The study adds that when the auditors or quality controllers inspect these factories, the union members are often not allowed to be present. Moreover the controllers have to announce their visits beforehand. However, Stefan Wengler, the managing director of the Foreign Trade Association of German Retail trade believes that the controls are successful:

"For instance, if the inspection is about child labour, then often these children remain at home, but the controllers can still see, whether children are employed in the factories or not – whether the factory has children specific jobs etc. All of this is not that easy to hide."

Ingeborg Wick of the Südwind Institute is not satisfied with this explanation. She is convinced that only when the inspections are unannounced and trade union members are allowed, the production can run under fair conditions.

Public Awareness

So far the German companies don’t stick fair trade labels on textiles. For responsible consumers the only way to protest is to constantly make the retailers aware about the severe working conditions in China. And as Wick puts it, public awareness is a key to change:

"The fact that consumers express their protest, and that they take part in various actions, ranging from street protests to signature and email campaigns, shows their unease or outrage against the companies. And this has led to some major developments. Today, some multinational companies have started paying attention to the social conditions of workers in global supply chains. That was not the case almost ten to fifteen years ago."

Following the publication of the study Aldi responded promptly and sent a letter to the Südwind institute, saying Aldi is aware of its social responsibility and is taking measures to address the issue.

The Institute stresses it does not wish importers, such as Aldi, to stop sending orders to these factories. The intention is only to encourage them to enforce better conditions for workers in the factories and to agree to an effective system of accountability.

  • Date 14.03.2008
  • Author DW Staff 14/03/08
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsS7
  • Date 14.03.2008
  • Author DW Staff 14/03/08
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/LsS7