A month before the big Make Poverty History demonstration in Edinburgh on 2 July, the movement has been hit by a row about the wristbands it sells, for people to wear to show support, being made in non-union, low-wage, sweatshops.
This fact was revealed in Solidarity (3/67) as long ago as February, but has now been highlighted in the Independent and the Guardian on 30 May. An audit requested by Oxfam, Christian Aid, and Cafod, three charities within the Make Poverty History coalition which had ordered silicon wristbands from Chinese factories in order to raise funds by selling them, has found (according to the Guardian) that:
“Tat Shing Rubber Manufacturing Company, in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, was accused of ‘forced labour’ because employees were obliged to provide a deposit against future possible breakages of machinery. It was also accused of poor health and safety provision. Tat Shing supplied 120,000 wristbands to Cafod.
“An audit report on Fuzhou Xing Chun Trade Company, in Fujian province, said workers were paid below the local minimum hourly wage of 2.39 yuan (16p), to as low as 1.39 yuan (9p). They were insufficiently rewarded for overtime work, had no paid annual leave and suffered pay deductions for disciplinary reasons”.
Despite charities like Oxfam making a justified fuss about, for example, 2004 Olympics clothing being manufactured in sweatshops, they still haven’t got the message about the centrality of workers’ rights.
The wristband scandal is not a one-off. In March Oxfam terminated a deal with Starbucks. There was a row about whether the decision was due to a campaign by Islamist groups against Starbucks (as distinct from other anti-union coffee-shop chains) because its boss is a “Zionist”, or (as Oxfam claimed) just part of a general review of operations - but neither the Islamists nor Oxfam said that Starbucks anti-union policy disqualified it straight off.
If workers’ rights are just one good cause among many, then maybe ignoring them for the sake of something which is going to raise money for another good cause seems sensible. In fact, for any serious strategy of solidarity against poverty, workers’ rights are central.
Poverty has never been and will never be ended by charity hand-outs. Poor people win their rights - including their right to escape poverty - only when they are organised and strong enough to claim and hold those rights.
In many of the world’s poor countries - Indonesia and Haiti, Sri Lanka and Nigeria, Mexico and Iraq, Algeria and Colombia - trade unions exist and fight. In China, Iran, and elsewhere, independent unions are illegal, but a continuing ferment of working-class action shows that underground organisations must exist.
Where trade unions get strong enough they can link up with peasant and unemployed movements, spawn working-class political parties, and help mobilise all the oppressed. And the workers in the big industries have the central strategic power in that mobilisation of the oppressed. They have their hands on the productive wealth of society. They can cut the life-blood flow of profits to the rich.
There is a vast amount of work to be done to support those workers’ movements, especially their more combative and democratic elements. When capital spreads and moves all over the world faster than ever, workers and trade-unionists have to network internationally too.
The No Sweat campaign has organised meetings, tours, and fund-raising for militant union leaders from Indonesia, Mexico, Haiti, and Iraq. With more support and resources, it can and should do much more.
That is why we will be in Scotland with No Sweat, in the protests from 2 July onwards focused on the G8 summit at Gleneagles, arguing and agitating for workers’ rights and workers’ struggles to be our central focus in the fight against poverty and against the warmongering, profit-squeezing G8 leaders.
By demonstrating in Edinburgh on 2 July, the Make Poverty History (MPH) coalition hopes to put pressure on the meeting of the G8 (the world’s eight most powerful government) due to start soon afterwards. MPH demands more aid to poor countries, with fewer strings; more debt relief; and fairer trade rules (fewer obstacles to poor-country imports into rich countries, and more scope for poor countries to protect their own industries).
All that is good. But if the issue of workers’ rights is shelved in favour of general “good works” and remonstrating with the rich to go easier with the poor, then the campaign becomes a train without an engine, a ship without a sail.