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Protecting Workers' Rights in Developing Countries

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 18 May 2011 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Rugmark Ethical Company

Should people in the UK be concerned about the rights of workers abroad? Many consider that it's the exploitation of workers in other countries that's largely responsible for the abundance of cheap goods that we can buy on our High Streets today. But there are other factors, too.

The High Cost of Low-Price Goods

The reason that the bulk of the UK's manufacturing has been shifted to locations in Eastern Europe and Asia is because it's a lot cheaper. The cost of transporting the goods has come down due to developments in shipping, land prices, utility charges and building costs are all much lower, too. But finances are not the only reason for relocating.

In many developing countries, multi-national corporations can use processes and chemicals that have been long outlawed in the west, which unfortunately cause damage to the planet as well as to the workers. It's over 25 years since a gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people, and over a hundred thousand people still suffer from ailments caused by the disaster.

Can This Be Sustained?

Thankfully, each time an area becomes popular with manufacturers, the rise in workers' rights organisations, health and safety rules, and laws concerning the use and disposal of materials eventually causes companies to look elsewhere. In the end, they will run out of places to go.

The governments of these countries want the foreign investment and employment that the work brings, but the people living there realise that the affects on their way of life might not be so great.

This has led to the rise of 'responsible shopping', where consumers in the West decide whether or not to buy a particular product based on ethics. Often the ethical choice is more expensive in terms of the money laid out at the till, but ethical shoppers believe that it is worthwhile to help to pay for environmental clean ups and to aid to countries where workers' rights aren't so well developed.

Labels That Point the Way

The Fairtrade mark is one of the best known ways of identifying a food or drink product where workers will get a far better proportion of the money. Often fairtrade set ups are based on co-operatives, so that the producers of the crop are in control of dividing the income among each other and are not beholden to corporations.

Another label to look for is the Ethical Company Organisation. This focuses on a wide range of goods that can be bought from companies that are the most responsible in terms of human rights, animal welfare and the environment. They audit companies or brands on a wide range of criteria before allowing them to use their logo, which certifies them as a company that has a good corporate social responsibility record.

Another label, this time specific to one industry, is the Rugmark, which guarantees that child labour has not been used to make a carpet or rug.

Make Your Choice With Your Eyes Open

If you decide to shop ethically, and particularly with regard to human rights and worker welfare, then it cannot be a financial decision, as it will undoubtedly cost you more, at least in the money that comes out of your pocket. But if you are prepared to take in the wider picture, then be prepared for a lot of research to make sure you make the right choice as well.

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