“I make school uniforms and can’t afford to send my daughter to school”: Could school uniforms offer a unique platform for communicating global inequality?
This blog was written by undergraduate student Amy Rosetta Jose as an assessment for the module ‘Issues in global commodity chains, production networks and informal work’, and selected for the blog by Dr Alessandra Mezzadri.
“I make school uniforms and can’t afford to send my daughter to school”.
These are the words of a mother in Bangladesh, interviewed in The Mirror, who makes school uniforms for Tesco and Sainsbury’s for just 25p per hour via contracts with the Delhi Institute of Rural Development (DIRD), which operates internationally. The irony is that, whilst families in the UK benefit from the cheap uniforms she helps to produce, workers like her in Bangladesh, and other countries in the Global South, are unable to send their own children to school. However, my intention is not to shame British families, but rather the global system which has fostered these relationships, suggesting that uniforms could offer a unique and far-reaching way to highlight this exploitation.
Working conditions and uniforms
Many garment workers who make uniforms for companies, including Sainsbury’s and Tesco, live with their families in one-room tin shacks or in dormitories. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are both founding members of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which was formed to protect workers’ rights. Yet an area audit of DIRD workers in Bangladesh found that most worked over 70 hours per week, exceeding the national labour laws, and made as little as £51 a month (a quarter of the £216 monthly wage recommended by the Asia Floor Wage Consortium). These low wages put enormous pressure on families and can mean that children are left alone to fend for themselves.
According to another DIRD worker, who could only afford to send one son to school, he could also only afford one set of school uniform which was £15. Let’s compare that with UK pricing: Lidl sells a complete set for £3.75, Aldi £5, Sainsbury’s £13.50, Tesco £18.50, Marks and Spencer’s £23-£46 and EcoOutfitters £50.97. Can it really come as any surprise that garment workers making products for Sainsbury’s and Tesco are severely exploited in order to get these costs so low?
The Guardian recently assessed the actual cost of making the uniform set that Aldi sells for £1.25. They took into consideration the weight of the garment, calculating the Cotton A Index Price (international benchmark) for material to be 32.14p, production costs around 70p, factory profit 11.5p and shipping costs 5p. Aldi then would need to pay around 30p to cover the costs incurred per outfit from port to check-out, making the total cost closer to £1.55. It is possible that, in the supermarkets, uniforms are being used as loss leaders. Whether the product is directly profitable or not, people are still suffering in production.
Is there an alternative?
The second-hand market for uniforms in the UK has suffered because of a planned obsolescence strategy – uniforms are poorly made to shorten the replacement cycle and force the purchase of new items. On the high street, Marks and Spencer has comparatively better supply chains but there is room for improvement. EcoOutfitters is possibly the only ethical UK school uniform manufacturer, using 100% organic cotton and ethical supply chains. However, it comes with a middle-class cost of almost £51 for one set.
Being ethical is arguably a luxury reserved for the well-off, considering the rising levels of poverty in the UK, with around 14 million people now living in poverty according to the UN envoy to the UK.
In 2014, the Children’s Commission on Poverty criticised the amount UK parents were expected to spend on uniforms and asked for government intervention. The Commission argued that many parents are forced to overspend on uniforms because of mandatory branded items. The report stated that parents overspend by an average of £170 per primary aged child per year and suggest that as a country we could save £1.3 billion per year by spending £100 per child. They explicitly advocated for parents to be able to purchase uniforms from supermarkets. In doing so, the Commission valued the availability of cheap uniforms in the UK higher than ending the exploitation of other children and their families in countries in the Global South. Given the bleak outlook on alternatives, the only way out is to pressurise our government into changing our trade laws to require retailers to act more responsibly.
School uniforms as a platform
Children are the future, yet as Susan Ferguson argues, they are already being groomed to be part of the capitalist, excessive, consumer driven culture which negatively affects countries in the Global South, who pay for our overconsumption by being exploited. Children have influence over how parents spend their money.[i] Many of these children and families participate in major national campaigns such as Comic Relief that highlight global disparities. Last year 6.3 million people tuned in to the main Comic Relief fundraising event on BBC 1. Yet the charity has been found to have used exploitative sweatshop labour. For example, the recent Spice Girls’ Comic Relief fundraising t-shirts scandal revealed that shirts are being made in Bangladeshi sweatshops by women paid just 35p per day, for working for 16 hours in abysmal conditions. Sadly, a band synonymous with female empowerment was raising funds for a Global North charity at the expense of exploited, mostly female, Southern workers. In response to this scandal, Comic Relief could use their platform to educate the public about issues in commodity chains and the exploitation of workers, inciting school children and their families to demand uniforms that are both affordable and ethically produced.
Highlighting worker exploitation on such a huge platform would put considerable pressure on the government to reconsider trade laws and implement real legislation that protects workers.
[i] Ferguson, S. (2006). The Children’s Culture Industry and Globalization: Shifts in the Commodity Character of Toys. International Symposium “Transformations in the Cultural and Media Industries”. Observatoire des Mutations des Industries. Retrieved March 1st, 2019, from https://www.observatoire-omic.org/colloque-icic/pdf/Ferguson1_2_gb.pdf