#GreatRevaluation: Justice all down the chain

Following our call for a great revaluation in the previous post, Maurice highlights one area where such action is urgently needed: clothing supply chains

We need to revalue the contribution of those currently risking everything to keep us safe and well in these precarious times. But it is worth remembering that, for some people upon whom we depend in order to enjoy our way of living, times have long been precarious.

I have written before about those who make our clothes, workers in the supply chains of shops here in our towns, people who have, literally, given us the shirts on our backs through their hard, often ill-paid and dangerous labour. See this piece on the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory complex, for instance (the seventh anniversary of which is rapidly approaching, by the way).

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting them too. The Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC), an alliance of labour unions and NGOs, has warned that a number of big UK and EU High Street brands are responding to the current crisis by cancelling orders placed with clothing producers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and other countries in the global South.

The organisation says the Arcadia Group, “which owns brands including Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Miss Selfridge, is estimated to have cancelled in excess of £100m of existing clothing orders worldwide from suppliers in some of the world’s poorest countries as the global garment sector faces ruin”.

Many of these orders were placed before the COVID-19 crisis reached its peak. In some cases, companies are issuing cancellation threats even where production of the items was already under way – that is, after the manufacturers had made major investments in materials for the job – or even completed, but not yet shipped.

One CEO of a well-known store reminded suppliers that his company had the legal right to cancel contracts ‘at any stage’, and then demanded discounts of up to 30 percent on goods in transit since 17 March.  “If you do not wish to accept the proposal” he added, “the order will be cancelled.”

Garment workers in the global south, already hard pressed at the best of times, are now facing a potentially devastating loss of jobs and income.

The Indonesian government estimates that up to 4 million Indonesians could fall into poverty and about 5 million could become unemployed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, as Yang Sophron, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, has said, Cambodia’s garment factories, “with cramped and closed-air conditions and workers passing clothes down production lines, share all the conditions for the virus to spread”.

Faced with this crisis, some companies have already stopped wages. CCC reports that workers in Bangladesh have protested for days in the streets, “demanding payment of wages for March, and protesting termination and layoffs of workers.

The state minister for labour warned that stern legal action would be taken against the factory owners who fail to pay workers before 16 April (today). But some of the workers have already been out of work since February and have not received wages since then.

Moreover, threatening the factory owners in the global south with stern action is not much use unless our companies in the north pay for work already undertaken.

If corporate social responsibility is to mean anything more than an empty slogan, we need to insist that our companies uphold workers’ rights. And if we expect to enjoy rights here in the global north, we have a responsibility to ensure they extend all the way down the supply chain, without which we could not enjoy the goods upon which our way of life is based – such as the very clothes on our backs.

To find out more and support the campaign, visit cleanclothes.org, or follow them on social media, @cleanclothes

Maurice Macartney

16 April 2020

After this, the Great Revaluation

Balloons. At local foodbanks.

In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens introduces us to the character Newman Noggs, who has, it appears, borrowed more than he could pay back from one Nicholas Nickleby senior, father of the novel’s eponymous hero. Noggs then ends up working for Nickleby, for a pitifully small wage.

“I took him on out of charity, and he has remained with me ever since”, says Nickleby. Dickens continues: “The kind-hearted gentleman omitted to add that Newman Noggs, being utterly destitute, served him for rather less than the usual wage of a boy of thirteen”.

This is the Dickensian bargain.

You create the conditions which allow you to accrue wealth but by which others are reduced to dependency levels; you then offer those others an exchange which, within the framework of the system may appear generous, charitable, even. But those others only take the bargain because they are virtually powerless to do otherwise. They are destitute, in Dickens’s word.

Newman Noggs sprang to mind recently because, during this crisis, there have been a number of instances where those placed in a position of need, or made ‘destitute’, by policy decisions have been left to depend on charity.

It was reported in March that “Major UK supermarkets have been asked to set aside supplies for food banks after a tumultuous few days in which several emergency food aid charities closed and others struggled to meet rocketing demand from people hit by the fallout from coronavirus.”

One of the lessons we need to learn from this crisis is that the very existence of food banks is an outrage. There were some 1.6m emergency 3-day food packages given out, by the Trussell Trust alone, last year in the UK – up from a few tens of thousands in 2008-9.

So if demand is ‘rocketing’ this year, we are looking at people, in their millions, dependent on an essentially Dickensian institution, in the UK, this far into the 21st century.

How has this been allowed to happen? How have we got to the stage where we are so used to food banks as the norm that you can see politicians with balloons smiling in pictures at the opening of a new one? In my local paper recently, I even saw a food bank fundraiser featuring an Elvis impersonator trying to jolly the general public into giving a bit more to a worthy cause.

Elvis, God bless him, should not have to be soliciting donations at a food bank.

We have allowed these Victorian structures to become just another part of the 21st Century charity circuit, alongside fundraisers for abandoned puppies and rare heart conditions.

This is not to diminish the effort and goodwill that goes into such things, and certainly not to criticise the organisations who provide food for the hungry, work to end animal cruelty, or take care of the ill. I have nothing but admiration for them and for those who need their help. My point is, rather, that the state, as a result of the policy choices of recent governments, has so washed its hands of responsibility, and done it so cleverly, that many don’t even notice there is something wrong any more.

Something similar has just been reported on the BBC NI website. A network of volunteers, under the name NI Scrubs, has sprung up to fill the gap in protective clothing – scrubs – for those working in health care during the pandemic. They are using their traditional skills, combined with the powerful communication tools of the internet era to create and distribute thousands of these homemade scrubs. This network of generous, skilled, active citizens is absolutely fantastic, a great story; but it is also terrible. Terrible because it so starkly highlights the problem it has arisen to address.

After this, there can be no going back to ‘normal’, because, as a graffito in Hong Kong puts it, ‘normal’ was the problem.

Like Nickleby the elder, the government, from 2010, created the austere conditions in which, if we are not to see our health workers without safety equipment, even to see neighbours starve, we ordinary citizens must pick up the slack. We must get out the sewing machines, pull on the Elvis suits, or blow up the balloons. And those who ought to be well-equipped, or those who until a few years ago, could rely on a publicly funded social security system, must now rely upon the charitable gesture – against which, as Samuel Beckett said, there is no defence.

As for the politicians using these sorts of activities as a photo-opportunity, William Blake perhaps put it best: ‘They reduce the Man to want, then give with pomp and ceremony’.

We should feel sympathy, but not only sympathy: we should feel outrage. The policies that have brought us to this point amounted, essentially, to a deeply regressive form of taxation. Rather than raise tax on the wealthy or on profitable corporations, the government allowed the development of a food bank system that depends on the donations of ordinary shoppers in ordinary High Street superstores. You do your shop; the superstore makes a (lightly-taxed) profit; and out of solidarity you put a few tins and dry goods into a food bank box at the end of the tills.

Essentially, as someone on a fairly average wage, you’ve just voluntarily taxed yourself, because you don’t want to live in a society that lets the vulnerable starve.

Essentially, if you donate your spare bedsheets or your skills to sew new scrubs, you are plugging the hole in public finances. Essentially, the champions of austerity, those kind-hearted gentlemen, charitable to a fault no doubt, whose watches cost more than your family car, would sooner see a load of generous but relatively poor people set aside a few packets of spaghetti for their even poorer neighbours than allow the government to raise their taxes by a penny.

But the current crisis is exposing all kinds of flaws in the system. Suddenly the government has had to ask the supermarkets themselves to chip in. Suddenly the government has had to rush to throw all kinds of money at a genuine emergency – funny how quickly it managed to find the magic money tree it said did not exist – or face complete disaster. Suddenly corporate owners need the collective power of the public, for that’s the power upon which the state is built.

Years of austerity have made us forget this. We are scrambling now to make up for lost time, to regain some sense of solidarity in the face of a crisis. And it has started to work, along with those sewing machines all over the country.

When it is over, those kind-hearted gentlemen, having come to the public for support in a time of need, will want us to go back to ‘normal’. They will want to go back to collecting their bonuses and setting limits to government attempts to raise taxes; they will want us to go back to ‘normal’ too, tightening our belts, shouldering the burden of austerity – just as we did after the crash of 2008.

But we cannot do that again. Not least because once this immediate crisis is over, we will need to take all the lessons we learned from it a ramp them up to face the even bigger crisis that has been unfolding all along – environmental breakdown.

We need to take this moment as the starting signal for a revaluation of our political economy. It will be a struggle: we will need all shades of progressives, leftists, democrats, equality and sustainability campaigners – the red, the green and the rainbow – to build the new network together, in order to resist those proposing a return to ‘normal’. We have to democratise the economy and re-democratise politics, because our politics has moved away – has been moved away from democracy towards plutocracy over the last few decades.

How? Well, the current crisis offers some leverage. We now know – governments and corporations alike are telling us this – that there is a whole network of essential workers, key workers, front-line workers who have come out heroically, some of them risking their very lives to rise to the challenge of the pandemic. Are we, the public, really going to stand by and watch when having saved lives including that of the Prime Minister, they are refused a pay rise afterwards, as they were refused, to cheers from the Tory benches, in 2017?

Are we going to watch as corporations that have come to the public purse for assistance, later attempt to crank still more wealth to those in the boardroom by cutting wages, terms and conditions for those on the floor?

Any corporation which comes asking for help from the power of the public now must remain democratically answerable to the public hereafter. If you want help, we will give it; but on condition that you put workers on proper contracts and on your boards, lift the salaries of the lowest paid, divest from fossil fuels, get your profits out of the British Virgin Islands or other tax voids. And so on.

Remember this: when the chips were down, the elite, corporate and otherwise, needed the help not of the oligarchs and the online influencers, but of the ordinary workers; and the ordinary workers, the cleaners, the posties, the drivers, the shelf-stackers putting out the toilet paper and pasta, the stitchers and scrub-makers, and not least the care-workers, shouldered their tools and set about their work. At least a million of them in high risk jobs that paid, according to an Autonomy study, “poverty wages”. Oh and, for some not in the least inexplicable reason, 98 percent of workers in that category are women. (See this excellent Scope NI article for more on this – and read the rest of their posts to boot!)

After this, charity will not do. After this, should they be told to go back to ‘normal’, we, the public, the Demos of this our democracy, must rise to defend them. As you valued them during the crisis, so must you value them after this. After this, any talk of rewards for the ‘risk takers’ must start with those who risked their lives.

After this, the Great Revaluation.

Maurice Macartney

14 April 2020

Everything Must Go (or everything must change)

It’s deja vu all over again, as Maurice rediscovers a review he posted on another site in 2014.

(I published the following review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ over five years ago, and thought of it again after referring to the book in my last post. As the piece has now been taken down from that other site, I thought it worth re-publishing here, not least because the lessons of Klein’s great work are more relevant than ever).

Just this week [the first week of October 2014] we learned that global wildlife populations have halved in a mere 40 years, largely because of human activity. If the report is right, it should shock us to the core: we have wiped out over half the world’s wildlife in half a human lifetime.

Just this week the European Commission, amid much talk of reducing emissions and diversifying power sources, attempted to give former oil man, Miguel Arias Cañete, the job of Energy and Climate Action chief. And as he had to give up his shares in oil companies to take up the post, the word ‘former’ perhaps applies only technically.

Just this week in the UK, the Conservative Party showed they were so determined to go ‘all out for shale’ – at least in England and Wales – that they set aside some of the basic principles of democracy, permitting gas companies to mine under people’s houses without asking permission, despite evidence of overwhelming (99%!) public objection to the decision.

All of these stories – and there are more where those came from – emerged just too late to be referred to in Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, published last week. But they provide clear confirmation of her analysis.

For Klein, the economic system that has been in the ascendancy since the era of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – the ‘Washington consensus’ – has both ramped up the pace of resource over-consumption, and opened a yawning gap between those at the lowest income level and a tiny elite at the top. Crucially, these two era-defining problems – environmental destruction and egregious inequality – both spring from the same source.

The ‘extractivism’ that leads to fracturing rocks and digging under your home without permission is by no means unconnected to the slow violence of the dismantling of the public sector, the reduction of wages, the cutting of hours, the imposition of zero-hour contracts and the creeping denigration of those on welfare that we have seen over the last few years, here and elsewhere. As Klein puts it, ‘the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy’. The drive towards extensive privatisation, too, is governed by the same logic. Everything that can be bundled up and sold off, according to this model, must be so bundled and sold. Everything that is now held in common must be enclosed and commodified, made to work towards boosting GDP.

Everything must be industrialised, scaled up, mechanised. All inputs must be measurable and disposable, including what business leaders have taken to calling ‘human capital’. Everything – including human capital – must contribute to maximising profit, or it is so much waste, to be cut off in the name of streamlining. Sold off or dumped; everything that isn’t profitable is landfill.

It’s as if we’re running some generalised closing down sale in which Everything Must Go.

Indeed if the ZSL-WWF report is correct – to say nothing of a huge range of reports on matters from melting ice-sheets to disappearing forests – everything is going already. In the words of the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, ‘humans are cutting down trees more quickly than they can re-grow, harvesting more fish than the oceans can re-stock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more carbon than oceans and forests can absorb’.

The problem is – and here’s where the above examples from Europe and the UK come in – the ascendancy of this destructive model has gone hand in hand with the progressive relinquishing of democratic control over the economy, handing power increasingly to ‘the markets’ – otherwise known as big corporations and wealthy individuals, those who gain most from dumping pollutants and low wages on the people below them.

There is a sort of vicious circle at work: the more resources you extract and control, the more power you have; the more power you have, the more resources you can extract and control. And these resources include political and social resources, such as the media. Hence the huge sums poured into politics in America, and increasingly on this side of the Atlantic, as well as, for instance, into organisations dedicated to sowing doubt about the science of climate change. Anyone who proposes to change the system can expect to have the full force of those resources ranged against them.

But change it we must. And the longer we fail to take decisive action the deeper and more painful the changes up ahead will be. Already the world’s poorest – that is, those who have done least to cause the problem – are suffering the worst consequences of severe and unpredictable weather exacerbated by climate change. To postpone the task of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is to risk acquiescing in this suffering, this injustice.

Yet embracing the task of making the transition gives us the chance to create both a more sustainable, and a more equitable human society – a more humane, inclusive political economy.

We need to join up all the movements that have sprung up to resist ‘extractivism’ in all its various forms, and start making the transition to a new model, one based on a ‘deeper form of democracy’, in Klein’s words, ‘one that provides communities with a real control over those resources that are most critical in collective survival’. It’s already under way. Unlikely alliances are forming in various parts of the world, a ‘powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, famers and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil’ along with modern urban environmentalists and lovers of nature, and of the places where we belong.

Making this transition is more than just a question of changing power sources from oil to renewable: it is also a ‘fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend’.

Klein might just as well have added that it is a shift in relations between ourselves and others too. The transition calls as much for a change in ethics as for a change in the political economy. Insulating and solarising buildings, expanding public transport, producing low-carbon equipment for schools and hospitals in developing countries, providing outlets for locally produced goods and reinvigorating workplace and local democracy – all of these things are more than merely economic issues, have more than merely economic effects. Such projects help construct models of what Klein calls ‘nonextractive living’ – or in another register, nonviolent living.

Given all the bad news, and the evidence that all too many of our political and business leaders are still wedded to the extractive, indeed violent, dominant model, perhaps this, finally, is what gives us room to hope. What Klein is calling for, what all who are alert to the crisis of unsustainability are yearning for, is a capacious movement, or network of movements where we don’t have to agree with each other all the time on all points, but where we agree to learn to make the transition together.

The title of Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, refers, of course, to climate change. Let’s hope one day it will retrospectively turn out to refer equally to her book itself – or rather to the strong, dignified, and above all humane movements it so powerfully describes.

Maurice Macartney

Originally published 3 October 2014; reproduced here 11 April 2020