Leading Article: Bring humane conditions to the garment industry

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The Independent Culture
THE HARROWING reports in yesterday's and today's Independent on conditions for garment workers in sweatshops are shocking. People are forced to labour in slave-worker conditions, producing high-quality garments for some of the most popular and fashionable labels that shoppers in the West are ready to pay good money for. In the US-administered Mariana Islands, in Cambodia and elsewhere the story is the same: people are being exploited on a scale which makes Victorian pit-owners look generous.

Western executives, presented with the Independent's dossier of evidence, talk of forced abortions as "absolutely immoral and inexcusable". But well-known clothes manufacturers are simply turning their back on the nightmare that their workers have to live through, including a vicious circle of debt.

This should not simply be a hand-wringing exercise where people shrug and say: "That's the Third World for you". Clothes companies must be forced to take responsibility for the grim conditions in which their assembly- line workers are forced to work. This is a question of control. If retailers are forced to take responsibility for the miserable conditions in which workers are forced to operate, things could change for the better overnight.

The Independent's Global Sweatshop campaign is calling for retailers to put codes of conduct in place which can be independently monitored. Customers are increasingly aware of the ethical issues surrounding what they buy. For many, the pleasure of owning a nice shirt, skirt or pair of trousers is diminished or destroyed by an awareness of the circumstances in which the garment has been made.

An "ethical trade" kitemark could help to identify garments produced in circumstances where certain basic standards in terms of pay and workers' rights have been met. Without a kitemark, buyers have no way of knowing what they are buying. Production costs in the Third World are and always will be lower than in the West. But retailers must ensure that at least basic standards are met.

If they are not prepared to do so, the Government must force them into action.