I ran across this short online reality show ‘Sweatshop’ on Ecouterre “Fashion Bloggers in a Cambodian Sweat Shop“, and it’s worth taking a look at. It’s mostly a expression of ignorance and privilege, but it’s also helpful to put clothing production into the proper context.
There’s a line in particular that stands out, in the second episode, by Ludvig Hambro: “Those who make the garments should also be able to afford them”. This seems like a good jumping off point to discuss Marxism.
One of the core ideas of Marxism is that we can look at the world through the lens of classes, rather than simply looking at individuals. Doing this can sometimes reveal patterns that would otherwise be obscured. Think of it as looking at a forest, rather than each tree individually.
At the end of the 5th episode, the payment made to the worker for a particular garment is juxtaposed with the retail price of that garment. In one case, Sokty holds up a sign indicating that she made the dress for $1, while Anniken holds a sign showing the retail price of $100.
Do you think that it’s reasonable that someone should have to produce 100 objects in order to afford the purchase of 1 of those same objects?
Marx (following Hegel and Locke) was of the opinion that all value came from labour: raw plants, in and of themselves, have little value, but cloth has high value. This change in value occurs due to the labour that is done on/to the plants. When that cloth is processed again, into clothing, the value of the clothing is higher than the unprocessed cloth. Again, the source of that increase in value is labour. Certainly, the undirected labour, the random stitching of cloth together, is not valuable, so the ideas that go into the clothing design are important, but without labour, an idea is merely abstract.
From this stems the idea that workers are the foundation of value in a society, and should therefore be valued as indispensable. This stands in stark contrast to our current situation where workers (like Sokty) are considered to be disposable and are disparaged, and the largely useless upper echelons of management are given hundreds of thousands of dollars for doing a bad job.
What of these classes? If we reshuffle our viewpoint of society, we can see it separated into two main groups: the workers (those who produce the value) and the capitalists (those who own the means of production). In a world where stocks and shares are relatively easy to access, the idea of ‘capitalist’ gets somewhat broadened, so I’m going to define it as only applying to those who have a say in the day-to-day affairs of the business, or who can exert significant voting power at a shareholders meeting. In other words: owning 1000 shares does not make you a member of the capitalist class in any meaningful sense.
If the world is divided (albeit not exactly cleanly) into these two classes, one of which is much, much smaller than the other, who determines the wages of the workers? Given the quantity of workers available to produce labour, and the scarcity of work available (we’ll come back to this later), it’s largely a buyers market: the capitalists set the price of labour.
Who determines the price of goods that are sold? Well, given that non-perishable goods retain their value almost indefinitely, there’s no rush to sell them, so the price can be set at the preferred value of the seller. As this is basically a sellers market, the price is also set by the capitalists.
Just let that roll around your head for a moment: the amount of money that you receive is determined by the same group of people who determine what your cost of living is.
Now lest I get accused of being a conspiracy theorist, I should point out that no, I don’t think that *all* capitalists are working together to maintain this level of tight control over *all* workers. Hell, I don’t think that even a large minority of them collude in this way. But yet if you look at any industry, you’ll find that the wages within that industry have all settled on roughly the same amount. It would be short-sighted and ignorant to simply say ‘well, that’s the value of the work’, when the reality is that that’s the price that the various companies have happened to settle on in order to ensure that their employees don’t run off to a different company. Companies have to match the approximate wage of other companies doing similar work, yet they all want to minimise their labour costs, so a Nash Equilibrium is reached.
But there are places where the conspiracy is real. Let’s talk about Foxconn, in China. In their largest factory, between 230,000 and 450,000 people are employed (accounts vary). In addition to the factory proper, Foxconn also owns worker dormitories, a swimming pool, a fire brigade, its own television network (Foxconn TV), and a city centre with a grocery store, bank, restaurants, bookstore, and hospital. So let’s get this straight: after you get paid by Foxconn, in order to buy food, books, enjoy recreational activities, or even if you get sick you pay Foxconn. This is a situation in which the loop of currency exchange has closed: everyone who works there is getting paid less than what using the service costs the consumer. Foxconn knows the precise income of each and every employee, and can alter the prices within ‘Foxconn city’ in order to bleed the maximum amount of money back from those employees. If you think that this is limited to Foxconn, you’re sorely mistaken and need to acquaint yourself with real world business practices.
So back to Ludvig’s somewhat naive complaint, that the workers should be able to afford the goods that they produce: what now?
I entirely agree with Ludvig, but as long as we leave wages in the hands of the capitalist class, this will never happen. Why? Because ignorant people believe that it’s the right of the capitalist class to exploit those without the power to resist being exploited. What can Sokty do in her situation? She could work for an equally exploitative company, or she (and her family) can starve. Those are her options, as an individual. Someone entirely ignorant of how the world works might respond that ‘she should just find a better job’, but this indicates how ignorant they are of these kinds of working conditions: better jobs are *scarce*. Why? Because in order to have a business that pulls in sufficient money to pay staff a decent wage, the local society must first have a decent wage, thus enabling them to afford to shop at your business. We can’t simply drop an Apple store down in the middle of the workers community in Phnom Penh, with iPhones priced for the Vancouver market, paying Vancouver wages to employees: the store would rapidly be out of business due to a lack of sales, as the price of goods would be beyond the capacity of the locals.
Sokty is currently paid $3 a day, or roughly $100 a month. There’s a campaign for that to be raised by roughly 60% to $160 a month, or $4.80 a day. This is, frankly, ridiculous. This changes very little about the situation, but the workers are pushing for what they consider to be a ‘reasonable’ increase.
In reality, if their wages were increased to $30 a day (i.e. increased by a factor of 10), this would have an extremely small impact on the cost to the consumer in the rest of the world. Rather than the aforementioned dress costing $1 to produce, it would cost $10 to produce, and instead of selling it for $100, it could be sold for $109. The 1000% wage increase would result in a 10% price increase: nothing. H&M (and all other retail outlets) could easily bump their prices by this amount, stick a label on all their goods claiming that they require their contractors to pay *good* wages (not merely ‘a living wage’) to their employees, and yet still maintain their profits (per item). There is no real downside to this option, yet it will never, ever be pursued by the capitalists: their goal is to minimise costs.
But only the financial costs. The cost in human lives: not on the radar.
What’s the real solution? It’s radical: the income that people have available to them needs to be entirely decoupled from the control of the capitalist class. What would that look like? It would be a quantity of money provided to the people by the government, at a set rate. A guaranteed minimum income, aka Mincome, to be provided regardless of the circumstances of the person, generated by taxing the companies at a meaningful (i.e. not 0%) rate).
This is foolish and would never work? Wrong.
This is socialism/communism? Yup. And….?
Ludwig captures our complicity in this in the 4th episode: “their lives suck because we are so well off”. Because we are so well off. Because we defend the profit margins of large corporations. Because we decry price increases. Because so many of us are anti-labour, anti-union, anti-worker.
Want change? Support unions in your area. Support increases to minimum wage. Tell your local politicians that you want to see that local stores are required to include good (not ‘livable’) minimum wage requirements in their contracts with overseas companies.
Or don’t. But know that you are complicit.
[I’m focusing on the bigger picture here, hence my lack of criticism of the videos themselves. Moreover, I don’t expect 17-year-olds to have a deep understanding of the world. I am, however, disappointed that their blogs/instagrams have pretty much remained entirely the same since their trip]