Spice Girls, London 2012 Olympics,” [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

January 20, 2019; Guardian

Do you know where your charitable “swag” comes from? In some cases, not only might the labor ethics of the supply chain be, by design, hard to trace, but taking a pass on that tracing may leave you acting in direct contradiction to your mission values.

On Sunday, an article in the Guardian revealed that Spice Girls T-shirts sold to support Comic Relief’s “gender justice” campaign were made at a factory in Bangladesh where women are underpaid and subject to abuse. The workforce, made up mostly of women, say they have been forced to work up to 16 hours a day, called names, and paid far less than a living wage.

Dominique Muller of Labour Behind the Label says that the conditions in the factory that produced the T-shirts are especially egregious, and adds, “It is absolutely essential that celebrities, charities, and brands ensure that their goods are made in factories which pay a decent wage and provide decent work.”

The Guardian, in an editorial, takes on the whole ugly conundrum:

Who carries the weight of a global supply chain? Whose lives are bound in its fetters? There is a grotesque quality to the Guardian’s revelations of the conditions under which Bangladeshi women in the garment industry labor to make Western women feel charitable and empowered. The T-shirts made in Bangladesh will ultimately sell for £19.60, of which a little more than half, £11.60, will go to Comic Relief, to help champion equality for women. The celebrities who promote them, and whom the T-shirts in turn promote with their slogan “I wanna be a Spice Girl”, are well-paid; the women who make them are paid around 35p an hour and expected to sew up to 2,000 in the course of a working day, which is anything from eight to 16 hours long. To put it another way, a Bangladeshi seamstress would have to sew at least 7,000 T-shirts to afford the price charged for one in the west—and buying or wearing one is supposed to be a way of championing “equality and people power.”

A Belgian company, Stanley/Stella, was to have monitored the operations of this factory but, says Muller, “The evidence coming out of this factory clearly shows the failure of auditing and current brand monitoring. Stanley/Stella claim to have monitored all their Bangladesh factories, and yet the evidence shows gross violations of labor laws and human rights. Brands must step up their game.”

The Spice Girls said through a spokesperson that they were “deeply shocked and appalled” and they vowed to finance their own investigation into what happened, but it appears that even though the group did check the ethical sourcing of the T-shirts, the supply chain was changed after that check. The vendor, Represent, has committed to issuing refunds to customers. The Guardian is using this moment to illustrate the problems posed by complex supply chains that defy tracing measures.

In the editorial cited above, The Guardian concludes:

Bangladesh is not alone in having a garment sector in which workers are ruthlessly exploited. An investigation before Christmas found a Chinese toy factory where women were paid on average 1p to make a doll which sells for £34.99 in the UK. So long as such factories are controlled by interests close to authoritarian governments, improvements can only be piecemeal and often cosmetic. In countries where the law means whatever the government wants, it can offer poor workers little real protection. But we are not powerless. The generous outrage of women in the rich world must be harnessed to help their sisters at the other end of the supply chain, where it weighs the heaviest.

—Ruth McCambridge