Most of us are waking leisurely to the prospect of a day aff. If we’re really lucky we’ll get the weather to do something nice. It’s the annual May Day holiday and as with many of these welcome aberrations in the working calendar, we don’t give a lot of thought to the reason why we’re off on this day and not some other.
May Day is one with many origins and applications. Celebrated in ancient times as marking an important pass in the growing season and in the realisation that winter was now definitely on the wane, there are those who mark its green roots. More recently, it has become symbolic as the day upon which to mark the rights of workers the world over. We used to march and gather on this Monday but the left being the left, that seems to have schismed. There were marches yesterday and marches and rallies last Sunday to mark International Workers’ Day which is commemorated on 28 April.
Ironically, many of us will spend today shopping, ensuring that folk in the retail trade don’t get to rest their labours. So much for solidarity.
But if we do nothing else, then we should at least spend a moment contemplating the terrible tragedy in Dhakar in which hundreds of people lost their lives in a factory making clothes for Western nations like ours. Our adherence to fashion and consumerism comes with a largely hidden cost and Dhakar brought that out into the open. Others suffer and die for our “right” to wear what we like, when we like and to cast it aside when the trend moves on.
Dani Garavelli’s excellent piece in last week’s Scotland on Sunday laid bare Primark’s role in all this. But it would be too easy to assume that moving upmarket offers some protection for workers and our own sensibilities alike. Clothing retail is more complex than that and the price paid is no guarantee that workers are not in sweatshops earning a pittance.
And the fact is that Primark is not the worst offender. It is hard to create a league table for retailers on this, but the Ethical Trading Initiative http://www.ethicaltrade.org/about-eti/our-members is doing its best. The aim is to encourage producers, retailers and manufacturers to adhere to a set of standards in terms of treatment of workers so that their lives might be less exploited and their working lives are improved.
Helpfully, the ETI produces a list of those who meet its standards. Alongside Primark sit clothing retailers like Asda, Asos, Boden, Burberry, Debenhams, Fat Face, Gap, Jaegar, Mackays, Marks and Spencer, Monsoon, Mothercare, Next and Sainsbury’s. These are full members – what is surprising is the list of retailers still only at the foundation stage.
They include Daks, Regatta, River Island, Stella McCartney, the White Company and the darling of the middle classes, John Lewis. Who’d have thought that Primark with its pile em high, sell it cheap brashness might comply with full ethical trading standards before John Lewis?
It’s also useful to work out who is missing. No Arcadia group – that’s Dorothy Perkins, Top Shop, Wallis, Principles, Top Man, BHS and Burtons to you and me. No Selfridges, no Harvey Nicol, no Karen Millen, no Oasis, no French Connection – and at the other end of the clothing market, no Matalan, no New Look and a positive dearth of shoe retailers too.
Which is not to say that all these retailers are by definition less ethical. They might well be ensuring their suppliers pay decent wages and provide decent working conditions for their workers. They might all have decided not to bother with ETI membership. Or we might be entitled to reach the other conclusion. But what we cannot assume is that the high end of the clothing retail market is any more ethical than the low end.
And maybe, if you are deciding to splash some cash on a Spring wardrobe on this bank holiday, you could ask a few questions of your favourites. Or at very least check the labels – there’s usually a clue in the country of origin or manufacture. Take a moment to care about your fellow workers elsewhere in the world by exercising your choices as a consumer. It’s what will make others sign up to the ETI and the standards it promotes in working conditions for workers everywhere. Happy shopping and happy May Day.