Reasons For Exploitation

I suppose the only question I have left is why? Why is exploitation and abuse so prevalent in our supply chains, when did it go so wrong and why is it so hard to stop?

There are a lot of reasons I suppose.

There are those who at the end of the day just don’t care about other people and exploit them happily for their own gain.

There are those who are desperate. Desperate to keep their factories going, desperate to keep a wage.

There are those who are afraid, who are facing pressure from gangs, paramilitary or rebel groups and are doing as they’ve been told.

They are those who don’t want to know. They are obligated legally to look but don’t want the hassle, expense or guilt of finding it.

Finally there are those who try. There are those who search but struggle to even work out who works for them. Talking to a man who works for IJM (International Justice Mission), about slavery and worker exploitation he explained to me that big companies don’t really know which factories supply them because so much sub-contraction goes on. That’s what makes it so hard to catch. There are those who lobby for changes in law and legislation and company policy, and one day maybe the people that try will finally win.


If you want to find out more about exploitation in the supply chain, check out some of these websites:

Ethical Trading Initiative

End Slavery Now




Exploitation in the Sex Industry

This isn’t entirely relevant but it’s worth mentioning.

Nefarious is a documentary about slavery and exploitation in the sex industry, it’s a difficult watch but I think it’s important to know what really goes on in the world.

The documentary covers women tricked into sex slavery from Eastern Europe who become trapped in legal red light districts where no one is looking too closely at anything that goes on, young girls in the Philippines sold by their families into prostitution so their fathers didn’t have to work. Girls as young as 7. And women in america who entered the sex trade of their own free will but who quickly became the slaves of violent and abusive pimps.

So yes, this is not related to manufacture in any way but it is related to slavery and child labour and exploitation and if you want to learn more please watch it, or google it, but be warned its a really tough 2 hours.

Are Our Workers Protected?

Continuing my research on the plight of the factory worker I came across a pretty shocking article from Canada.

The article claimed that studies carried out in Canada found that women (and men) who had worked in factories with plastics were up to 400% more likely to develop breast cancer along with other life destroying illnesses.

What’s really shocking though is that no one really cares. No one is doing anything about it, and most workers had never even considered that their work might be the problem, they had simply put it down to bad luck. But maybe it wasn’t bad luck at all.

I was intrigued as to how this could be allowed to happen, and I was especially curious after I’d visited the plastics factory and had witnessed first hand the kind of conditions people working in factories can consider normal and be expected to work in all day, every day. I checked out the government guidelines with regards to plastics and fumes, and they seemed surprisingly vague. It seemed to be mostly guidelines for good practice rather than laws.

Maybe I was looking in the wrong place, or maybe I just don’t understand them, but they didn’t seem to be very comprehensive at all. Suddenly what I saw in the factory, and read in the article didn’t seem all that surprising after all.


211 Million

In the world today there are 211 million children under the age of 15 employed around the world, 73 million of whom are below the age of 10. They can be found working in mines, factories, farms, boats, in people’s homes, on the streets- children are employed all over the world by employers seeking cheap labour and more compliant workers.

These children are being exploited. Their families are desperate for money and the children desperate to help. Sometimes they’re orphans who believe that the person exploiting them for profit is going to look after them, provide for them. These children are commonly made to do jobs which are extremely dangerous, and a number of them loose their lives.

20 million children are employed in factories, factories which make toys, fireworks, footballs, decorations, food and clothes. Factories which supply us. How horrifying is that?

How sickening that we read about child labour in the Victorian cotton mills and chimneys and talk about how disgraceful and disgusting it was that it happened, and congratulate ourselves on eradicating it on these shores, only to fund it on somebody else’s shores-today.

If you want to get an idea of the scale of the problem and how wide spread it is, the US Labour Department has compiled a list of all areas in different countries in which child labour has been found. The list includes forced labour as well.


Other statistics and data can be found here:

The World Counts




The Fate of the Developing World

I have been researching the human cost of manufacture and it dawns on me that the information I can find is the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg. The problems run very deep and it seems like we’re always making things worse.

Everyone says that automation is the future of manufacture. They shout about how efficient it will be, how cheap, how fantastic for our economy. Sometimes they even shout about how great it will be for the workers who will be liberated from the drudgery and hazards of factory life.

But what would the consequences of automation really be?

Well, as far as I can see the introduction of automation to replace the foreign worker would be extremely damaging. Why?

We have put a number of developing countries in a position where they are completely dependent of the export of goods to the West, i.e. they are completely dependent on the export of their cheap labour. What this means is that if we, the West, remove our need for their labour with the introduction of automation then we will cripple these countries almost overnight. Automation of manufacture, as well as the automation of other areas could put two thirds of the jobs in developing countries at risk.

The result would be a massive vacuum, millions of workers suddenly without work. Workers who have spent years being underpaid and so have absolutely no disposable (or otherwise) income to spend at home. With the opportunity to create jobs through export ripped away they would have to try and set up businesses selling goods nationally, but because so many are unemployed very few will be able to buy anything and so without demand new industries will struggle get set-up and function. That of course assumes that someone is willing to invest at all.

In the past automation has enabled rapid growth but when a country is exporting its labour rather than its goods, automation makes them defunct. A country has to be in charge of it’s own production before automation can help it.

Although automation might be the right thing for us (though I don’t think it is), it definitely isn’t for them. Before we should even consider automating the workforce provisions need to be made and structures put in place to support the people being cast aside.

When the time comes I’d like to think that the companies with manufacturers overseas will support or invest in the workers they dump. I’d love to imagine that they’ll phase it out, talk with the governments who have been working with them, and protecting their interests for so long to ensure the impact of a mass industry exodus is kept under control. But I think we all know that’s not likely.

When people are left without a job and without money they become an easy target for traffickers, desperation and poverty are how slavery begins, and complete automation of the overseas workforce will will produce just that.



Product Design: An Ethical Conundrum.

In January myself and 30ish other students from Just Love, Glasgow went on a retreat to learn more about social justice, the biblical precedent for it and the practical ways in which we can pursue it as well as to have a bit of craic.

As part of our programme we set up a Skype call the Ruth Valerio, the author of ‘Just Living’, a book about how our everyday actions relate to social justice and how we can live our lives ethically. In the name of full disclosure, I will admit that I still haven’t read her book, but it is on my list- perhaps I will get it for my birthday? Who knows…

One thing in particular which Ruth said really stuck with me and challenged the future I saw for myself.

We asked Ruth what the most significant change we could all do to truly pursue Just lives was, her answer was that we should choose to be content. She argued that we needed to escape the mentality of always striving for bigger, better and more.

Let me explain; we go to school to get good jobs so that we can buy a nice house and a nice car and so that we can go on nice holidays and ultimately impress others so that we can get a better job with a bigger paycheck. Then we replace the nice car with a better car or the nice house with a bigger one in a better area and we buy more expensive holidays and buy nicer things. Then after a while we aim to move up again, the paycheck gets bigger, the car gets bigger and we spend more and more of our money on things which we don’t keep.

This mentality leads to mountains of waste, tons of needless greenhouse gases and the exploitation of people at home and abroad.

The conundrum then is this; design is never content.

Design is always striving for better and so is always producing more, consistently making product after product obsolete despite it still being functional. So can design (specifically the design of products) ever truly be ethical if it is always concerned with producing more?

Is it possible to strike a balance between being content and pushing forward?



45 Million

In the world today there are an estimated 45 million people trapped in slavery in 167 countries. With a number that high it is unsurprising that many of the products we buy have been made, in some way, through the effort of slaves.

My own slavery footprint was calculated to be around 33, using this site, Slavery Footprint. This means that when the food I eat, clothes, cosmetics and medicines I buy and the electronics I own are taken into account 33 people involved in their making were not doing so out of their own free will.

The temptation, as always, is to assume that modern slavery exists only in other countries and is due to the failings of other cultures and communities and not our own. However, in 2014 over 2,000 people in Britain were reported to the UK Human Trafficking centre as potential victims of slavery, over 100 of whom were born in Britain. In the UK the most prominent form of modern slavery is sexual exploitation, this is true of a lot of EU countries and in fact a high number of sex trafficking victims in the UK are originally from other European countries, generally those that were part of the Soviet block. In Moldova for example, 1% of its entire population is or has been a victim of sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking certainly gets the most coverage in terms of types of slave labour, however just as it was when slavery was legal, the majority of those enslaved are enslaved for labour, 67.9% in fact. These people are forced to work in areas such as agriculture, domestic servitude, construction and of course manufacturing.

Slave labour pays an integral part in the mining and processing of a great deal of raw materials such as Iron, Copper, Coal and Gold. A lot of these then go into products, such as smartphones, which we buy, and which, unless our approach to manufacture changes, people like me will design.

It is not only the raw materials that reach us having passed through the hands of slaves, a number of the products themselves have been manufactured, assembled and packaged by slaves. In China, the country from which the majority of cheap products we buy have come from, slavery has been found to play a part in the manufacture of electronics, toys, shoes and christmas decorations.

As I’ve written in a previous blog the approach of our society towards manufactured goods contributes massively to the growth of modern slavery. The competition for lower prices and faster turn arounds cause manufacturers to cut costs, sometimes through paying their employees less, sometimes paying them nothing or through paying less for their raw materials which in turn forces those suppliers to make a similar choice. However, when supplying a raw material there are fewer ways to cut your cost. Unfortunately, the easiest way is generally to cut your labour cost or scrap it all together.

The photo is courtesy of Just Love, Glasgow, I recommend giving their blog a wee read if you have the time- #shamelessplug



A look at ‘Fast Fashion’

Continuing my investigation into the Human cost of modern design and manufacturing, I watched the documentary, “The True Cost”.

To quote the documentary, “This is a story of greed and oppression, power and poverty.”.

“The True Cost”, looks at the disastrous and appalling effects of the fashion industry. I think we are all aware on one level or another that our clothes are not justly made. We, myself included, are guilty of turning a blind eye because it is more convenient and easier for us to simply not ask questions when it comes to our clothes. Why should we care who made our jeans when they’re an absolute bargain?

This documentary however revealed an extent of exploitation I was not aware of. It showed how we, in the west trap people in developing countries in terrible jobs and terrible conditions for the sake of profit and consumerism.

It is one horrible vicious circle caused, the documentary suggests, by the western system of striving for profit and living for stuff, and capitalism’s tendency to treat people as just one more commodity, reducing the thousands of individuals mistreated in factories worldwide to the commodity of labour.

The cycle starts with big business competition, with each big brand competing to have the cheapest clothing and to have the most new stock.

They ship out their manufacturing work to ‘low cost’ economies where they know they can get away with pretty much anything. The big companies don’t own the factories they use either as a way of absolving themselves of blame. If they don’t own the factories then they are not directly responsible for the wages, working conditions, pollution or safety failures inside.

As companies compete to reduce their prices, they offer the factories a lower price than before, threatening to take their business elsewhere if it can’t be done. The factory owner and the workers are desperate for the work and so agree. The workers are then paid even less, made to work even more over time and the factory owner quickly scraps anything that will eat into his profit margin, which is already very slim. Things such as safety checks and guidelines as well as environmental guidelines are the first to be scrapped.

This is one of the main factors which contributed to disasters such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza in which Bangladesh which led to the death of 1,135 workers. Here the factory owner forced his workers back into a building which he knew was structurally unsafe, threatening to fire them if they refused.

The workers in these factories often have no union and few workers rights and are often too desperate for a job to be able to put up much of a fight.

We then buy the clothes, and since they’re so cheap and new clothes come out so often we feel no shame in throwing them away after a few months. All these clothes then sit in a landfill for 200 years polluting the atmosphere, groundwater and soil.

And the story doesn’t end there! The clothes we then give away in an attempt to make ourselves feel better don’t all get sold, because as I’m sure you’ve guessed, there’s just too many! Instead we ship them back to countries like Haiti to be sold cheaply, yet again, or given away.

This then destroys their domestic clothing market making them dependent on export, and thus forces them to provide dirt cheap labour in order to attract the global brands.

Our greed, desire to affirm ourselves with fashion and make ourselves feel rich because of the amount we can buy forces people in other countries to work in conditions we would never agree to work in for a rate of pay we would never accept.

The question after considering the true cost of ‘fast fashion’ is; Who is really paying the price for our clothing? and; Is this a price we are happy to pay?

“The True Cost'”, can be found on Netflix if you fancy giving it a watch.