"Don't boycott clothes made by exploited workers"

Customers should not boycott clothes that have been made by exploited workers, says the director of the East African School of Human Rights, Atunga Atuti O.J. . It’s a good idea, though, to question the origins of the goods you buy, and to engage the brands.

When a clothing factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand workers, consumers worldwide felt guilty. “It’s partly our fault, because we want to buy clothes made cheaply in sweat shops” was a recurring outcry on social and in traditional media. The solution: not to buy these clothes, just like we boycott blood diamonds and other ‘unfair’ materials? Low-end brands like Wal-Mart and Target, and higher-end ones like Levi’s, Calvin Klein and GAP, use labour from the Kenyan Export Processing Zones (EPZ’s), where labour conditions are often as miserable as those in Bangladesh.  But Kenyan human rights expert Atuti Atunga does not believe in Western-only guilt, and even less in Western boycotts.

Aren’t Western consumers to blame for sweat shop labour?

No. It’s a shared responsibility between government, factories, unions, labour and building inspectors, importers and consumers.

But don't they as consumers want our clothes to be made cheaply?

The amount paid to the worker who made the garment is minimal. It could even be doubled without affecting the final price much. Importers pay much more for electricity.

Wouldn’t the improvement of conditions such as building safety, health care for workers, and humane working hours, affect the price as well?

The producers and factory owners make huge profits. They could easily afford better labour conditions.

The Kenyan government says that importers could take their dollars and leave the country if they would have to pay the workers more.

There is no real threat. The companies who invest in the EPZs receive huge tax benefits. They won’t run away if workers are treated better: imagine the damage that would do to their reputations.

So why isn’t the Kenyan government doing something about the sweatshop conditions?

That is what we have been asking as human rights researchers and activists. We have had good laws regulating labour and safety in the EPZs since 2007, but nobody checks up on adherence to the laws.

Why is that?

Factory owners tend to slip building and labour inspectors an ‘envelope’, so that they don’t check any further than the reception desk. There is also collusion between factory owners and government departments.

Shouldn’t the trade unions cry foul?

The EPZs have been more of an NGO issue because the EPZ managers and authorities have stopped workers from unionising. In turn, unions then called NGO’s ‘busy-bodies’ for engaging with EPZ workers. There is also collusion between factory owners and some union officials.

So we are just waiting for another ‘Bangladesh’?

A disaster like the one in Bangladesh could happen in Kenya, yes. It has happened here in a paint factory in the past.

But surely a boycott would send a strong message and perhaps improve the situation?

There was a boycott call in the case of a canned fruit factory in 2010. The result was disastrous. There were huge losses for the company, the workers and the country.

So what then?

There should be social sections in all agreements with importers. I would also propose a carrot-and-stick model in which active consumers, who investigate the origins of their goods, report favourably on companies that address workers’ rights, and expose companies who do not. International pressure would also help change the attitudes of the unions, who would feel a need to justify their role in protecting workers.

This interview was conducted by Evelyn Groenink, ZAM Chronicle’s investigations editor.

Atunga Atuti O.J.