T-shirts

So shock horror news of the day (it’s probably an ancient story actually, but it came up on my facebook feed today) is that the Queen of Pop, Beyoncé has her Ivypark t-shirts made in a sweatshop where the workers get paid 44p per hour. In fact, this view of the shocker originates at MilktheCow Podcast, a page that seems to generate hourly knee-jerk memes of stunning banality, saying such things as ‘There’s always enough money for bombs, but never enough money for health – Funny that’ and ‘I’m against anything that kills people or destroys the planet that we live on’ and this one seems to match them for penetrating insight into the subtleties of the way the world works. The irony, allegedly, is that Beyoncé’s t-shirts are about empowering women, and yet it seems she is happy to exploit women in the third world by paying them a pittance. In any case, she has denied it (she would, wouldn’t she?).

The fact is that even if the revelations about Mrs Knowles-Carter are new, stories about t-shirts being made in sweatshops are old hat. Here’s the Guardian a couple of years ago about the ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt which Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were forced to wear in order to demonstrate their credentials to the voters (Cameron refused…) and which turned out (so it was alleged) to have been made in appalling conditions. The simple fact is that any t-shirt which costs less than £10 will have been made in a country where people will work for peanuts. It’s worth pointing out that this fact by itself doesn’t necessarily point to poverty. 44p per hour may buy quite a lot in the local economy. No one is going to pretend, I hope, that these people share the lifestyle, trappings and aspirations of many of the people in the wealthy West who might end up wearing their products, but the morals of inequality are not, in my view, identical to those of exploitation. Differential costs and availability are one of the principle drivers of trade. The Silk Road didn’t develop because silk was as easy to come by in Venice as it was in central Asia. Some growers of silk might well have been exploited by unscrupulous tradesmen – and vice versa –  but the fact that silk could be sold in the West for more than it cost to buy and transport from the East was exactly what made it worth doing. Similar considerations are at work when H&M chooses to have its t-shirts made in Bangladesh, and BT to have its support telephone lines based in Calcutta. Does anyone ever enquire into the rates paid to support engineers in India? I’m prepared to bet they get paid less than if they were based in Basingstoke. Quite a lot less, in fact.

I want to dig into this little fuss and think about how we can fix it. I’m going to pretend, pessimistically, that we can’t fix global inequality overnight (I think I believe that we can’t ever fix it, but that’s for another piece) and ask what Beyoncé can do about this to take the heat of righteous indignation off her.

Obvious, you might think, she could pay the workers in the factories that make her t-shirts the proper amount. (I’m going to concentrate on the amount, and not the conditions. I think there may well be a case to be made that conditions in such factories are inhumane and could easily be fixed. But that wasn’t the point of this particular meme, it was the amount that the workers are actually paid). So what do we think is the proper amount? How about 88p/hour? That’s a rise of 100%. Don’t be ridiculous, you say, that’s a pittance too. It might indeed be, but it’s certainly twice the pittance. And I imagine the workers in a competing local factory where they don’t make Beyoncé t-shirts would be hugely envious, possibly riotously so. Just think of the fuss at Dagenham if all the workers who made the Ka suddenly went from £7.85 per hour to £15.70, while everyone who worked on other cars continued at the lower rate. They’d have good reason to feel aggrieved, I think you’ll agree.

No, no, you’re saying, not just the Beyoncé workers, all of them need a raise. Agreed, but it’s hard to see what she can do. If we’re going to fix this for her, it really needs to be something that’s in her power. Getting together all the major employers in the entire region where her t-shirts are made and negotiating a 100% pay rise for all the workers with no equivalent increase in productivity is going to set back the new tour considerably.

Stuff this, I’m assuming you’re saying, she shouldn’t be making them there at all. She shouldn’t be exploiting people. She should have sourced the manufacture of her t-shirts from a good American company. One that makes t-shirts properly and pays its workers the minimum wage. Well, I’m not going to bother you with why you’re happy for them to be paid minimum wage in the US, but you weren’t happy for them to be paid minimum wage in Sri Lanka.  Let’s see whether that’s even possible. Well, you certainly can get t-shirts that are made (or at least claim to be made) in the US, but they ain’t cheap. Yes, that’s the whole point, you’re saying, pay the proper amount for the product and stop trying to flog stuff cheaply because you’ve had them made by slaves.

Okay. I’m now picturing the scene at the factory. ‘I’m sorry ladies. Beyoncé has decided to have all her t-shirts made by American manufacturers, because people said she was exploiting you. Frankly, we only opened this branch to match the increase in volume caused by the Lemonade album. You’re all redundant, I’m afraid.’ ‘So, we get redundancy pay, right?’ ‘Hell, no.’ ‘But we’ll starve.’ ‘Yeah, but at least we’re not exploiting you.’

And those new t-shirts. It’s just possible, I suppose, if she really cares, that she will take the hit on profits. But since plain new American Giant t-shirts made in America sell for about the same as Beyoncé’s brand stuff, I’m going to guess that one of two things would happen. Either the price will rise to the point where her fans won’t buy them, or she’ll realise that actually there’s little point selling t-shirts that make her no money, or even cost. And given that her lovely husband has referred to his early life selling crack cocaine, where he developed a ‘hunger to make money’ , I’m going to doubt that they’re going to get all charitable about merchandise. (Wait, and we’re talking about the morals of having t-shirts made, here? Or was selling crack all right because he was poor and unknown? Or because it’s badass?)

So is it mainly the hypocrisy that matters more than the exploitation? If Beyoncé  had remained silent about women, instead of sending an empowering message, would that have been better? Or what if they had said ‘Remember to look nice for hubby!’? Tricky. If women had to labour long hours stitching ‘No more sweatshops’ into t-shirts, it would be hard to avoid finding it morally queasy.

But here’s a thought – it must surely be better to be a world famous influential pop star making some kind of stand for empowerment than to be one not doing so. Are we happy that white or male pop stars down the decades might have had t-shirts produced in exactly similar conditions, and yet not have been criticised for hypocrisy simply because they were sending out a message about the Ace of Spades, or the Spiders of Mars?

Apparently, it takes a black woman trying to unite her fandom in feminism to bring that kind of criticism.

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