Letter: Sweatshop reform

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Sir: Your campaign against sweatshops is welcome because poor working conditions are prevalent throughout the garment industry. But unless we all adopt Gandhi's practice of wearing homespun cloth, boycotting retailers for using sweatshop labour would leave most people wearing very little.

Boycotts may raise awareness and pressure some retailers to change from whom they buy, but they can also cause poor workers to lose their jobs and cause children to be thrown out of factory work and on to the streets. Boycotts leave factory managers no wiser as to how to ensure productivity without imposing exploitative conditions.

Oxfam's experience in its Clothes Code Campaign suggests ways of changing business mentality. Retailers should adopt credible codes of conduct under which they accept responsibility for all workers throughout their supply chain. They must have the means to detect poor conditions, make sure their suppliers know that exploitation of workers is unacceptable, and then work with the supplier to improve conditions. All these steps must be open to independent assessment and verification.

Your campaign to demand social responsibility from big businesses is legitimate, but it should not detract from the responsibilities of government. Strong laws to protect workers' rights and stringent inspections of factories are needed. In many countries governments encourage or are deliberately reticent about the exploitation of poor workers. Codes of conduct help, but ultimately it is the government's responsibility to protect human rights.

The campaign must be clear who the beneficiaries are. The consumers' "right to know" is an important part of the struggle toward universal respect for workers' rights, but it is not an end in itself.


Acting Policy Director

Oxfam GB