This year’s must-have fashion: pity for Indians

Recent TV documentaries exposing that Primark’s clothes are made by Indian child labourers have been nauseatingly elitist.

Daniel Ben-Ami

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Anyone who doubts the nauseatingly elitist character of campaigns for ‘ethical consumption’ would do well to watch the recent British TV documentaries on child labour in India closely. Although their styles differ, the underlying message of the documentaries is the same: those who buy cheap clothes are naïve, at best, but more likely are consumed by greed; and those who produce these clothes are ‘fashion’s real victims’ who need to be rescued by Western ethical activists.

The only people presented favourably in these programmes are Western consumer activists and their local allies in India. They are seen as running a heroic campaign against the forces of greed and ignorance. Everyone else is viewed with pity, contempt, or both.

The simple-minded starting point of the activists is that there is a straightforward relationship between cheap clothes in Western discount stores and cheap labour in India. Poverty in India is therefore reduced to a simple morality tale of corporate greed. Even a bright 10-year-old should be able to see that the question of economic development, or more precisely the lack of it, is a more complex problem.

Last night’s Panorama programme on BBC1 was the latest example in the genre (1). At the start, it showed YouTube footage of the scuffle that broke out when Primark opened its store on London’s Oxford Street recently (2). The scene was set to blame greedy Western consumers, with their crazed desire for cheap clothes, for poor working conditions and ultimately for child labour in India.

Much of the programme was filmed in India itself. Tom Heap – a white man who does not appear to speak any Indian languages – followed the brilliant ruse of going undercover in India. Perhaps he felt his superior journalistic skills would allow him to go unnoticed. He posed as a fashion buyer to allow him to visit Indian factories which supply Primark and their sub-contractors. Before long he found Indian children, often working from home, sewing beads and doing stitching on clothes destined for Primark.

Although investigative journalism is generally to be applauded, in this case the reporter had gone to a lot of trouble to prove a contention that should be blindingly obvious. A few minutes surfing the internet or a trip to the local library could have told him that child labour is prevalent in India – and not only in factories working for Primark. Child labour is always endemic in desperately poor countries. It also tends to disappear as they escape from poverty.

About 80 per cent of India’s 1.1billion people live on less that $2 (about £1) a day according to World Bank estimates. Over a third live on less than $1 a day (3). From such a perspective, the pay given to Indian garment workers may be terrible by Western standards, but it is not surprising or unusual. The tragedy is that the vast majority of Indians are dirt poor. Most of these work for Indian companies rather than foreign firms, and 60 per cent of the labour force is employed in agriculture alone (4).

In such circumstances of extreme poverty, child labour is prevalent, because sending children to work is the only way that the poorest sections of society can feed themselves and their families. If there are laws outlawing child labour – as there are in India – the poorest Indians have no choice but to try to find ways around them. Intervention by pious foreigners and the introduction of yet more regulations are only likely to make their plight worse.

The problem India faces is severe underdevelopment rather than corporate greed. Yes, it has grown fast in recent years, but it started from an incredibly low base. What India needs is even more economic growth rather than sanctimonious lectures from Western ethical evangelists.

Yet Heap can only moralise rather than get to the root of the problem. In some of the most excruciating scenes in last night’s Panorama, he showed video clips of child labour in India to young women who shop at Primark in Britain and Ireland. After considerable emotional pressure they conceded that they felt bad at having bought cheap clothes from Primark. It is the contemporary equivalent of forcing someone to confess to a sin.

If Panorama’s Heap can appear crass at times, then he is a model of sophistication next to the six British ‘fashion addicts’ who were at the centre of the BBC’s recent four-part series, Blood, Sweat and T-shirts (5). The six spent several weeks in India working in large factories, smaller factories, cotton fields and in a cotton mill. The last episode focused on child labour in a Mumbai slum.

Some of the six were openly contemptuous of India and their hosts; even those who were more sympathetic quickly adopted an air of smug superiority. They did not hesitate to hector Indians about their poor working and living conditions. As if Indians needed lectures from spoilt Westerners, some of whom do not appear to have even left home or worked for a living. The six seemed to see little difference between looking good on the outside, by wearing fashionable clothes, and flaunting their inner ‘goodness’ by sermonising to Indians about how they could live better.

To its credit, the series did occasionally show Indians responding to the criticisms. In one scene, an Indian woman had a go at the fashionistas for sneering at her home in which she had allowed them to stay. Their response was to claim, indignantly, that they did not mean it. In another scene, an Indian garment worker pointed out that child labourers generally have little choice but to do what they do – yet such scenes were rare and almost lost in the young Westerners’ whingeing about India and the Indians.

Channel 4 has yet to broadcast its contribution to the theme, The Devil Wears Primark, but it sounds like it will be more of the same. It was due for broadcast on 1 June, but was pulled without explanation (6). The title probably reveals much about the programme: those who wear Primark clothes are seen as representing satanic forces.

There is an illuminating contrast between these apparently sympathetic attitudes towards Indian ‘fashion victims’ and the hostility towards any sense of aspiration amongst Indian people. The recent launch of the Tata Nano, the cheap ‘people’s car’ being produced by one of India’s largest companies, gave rise to expressions of dismay and outrage from the West. The car is seen as potentially harmful to the environment and inappropriate for a poor country such as India. Presumably Indians are supposed to stick to walking and riding bicycles (see One short drive for a man, one giant leap for mankind, by Brendan O’Neill).

From the perspective of the eco-evangelists, Indians should only be shown sympathy as long as they behave as victims. And even in such cases they have to accept salvation as meted out by Western consumer activists. Any aspiration to achieve a better, more prosperous life is viewed with disdain by the purveyors of ethical consumption.

In this sense, ordinary Indians and shoppers at Primark in the UK have something in common: both sets of people have a desire to become better off. The Westerners may be starting from a higher base but, like their Indian counterparts, they want more cheap clothes, cheap food and cheap transport. These are things that only a richer, more productive society can provide.

By contrast, the purveryors of ethical consumerism see the popular desire for increased consumption as the ultimate sin. It is hard to imagine a more patronising and childish attitude.

Daniel Ben-Ami is a journalist and author based in London. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Daniel Ben-Ami questioned whether fair trade coffee would really end global injustice, and asked if the workers of the world were really disunited? Elsewhere he looked towards an age of abundance. Nathalie Rothschild said ‘fair trade fortnight’ would do more to alleviate Western guilt than Third World poverty. Neil Davenport reviewed Paul Mason’s Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. And Phil Mullan analysed the truth about the credit crunch. Or read more at spiked issue Economy.

(1) Ministers pressed on child labour, BBC News, 22 June 2008

(2) Footage of the opening of Primark’s Oxford Street store, YouTube

(3) Data is available from the World Bank

(4) Data is from the CIA World Fact Book entry on India

(5) Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, BBC; Ceri Dingle of Worldwrite reviewed the programme for Culture Wars

(6) Broadcaster pulls Devil Wears Primark Documentary, Guardian, 2 June 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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