This week man-devil Sir Philip Green was in the papers yet again, dragging Beyoncé down with him. Following the destruction of BHS the media have been quick to pick up on the latest moral balls-up from super villain and Felonious Gru lookalike Sir Phil.
An investigative piece from The Sun this week revealed that the workers manufacturing Beyoncé’s new athletic clothing line, Ivy Park, work up to 60 hours a week on just £4.30 per day.
The Sun claims that the garments are being produced in inhumane conditions at the MAS Holdings factory in Sri Lanka, although the brand has denied the claims of poor conditions and assured that Ivy Park has a rigorous ethical trading program.
Despite not being a Bey, or Bee, or whatever unsettlingly twee name the ravenous Twitter mob has given themselves, I don’t think Beyoncé is in the wrong here, and thus by proxy I suppose neither is Sir Philip unfortunately.
It’s completely understandable that when you hear of sweat shop workers getting paid pittance and working in grim conditions for exorbitantly long hours your immediate reaction would be the desire to protest with your purse and spend your money on clothes “truly ethical” in their manufacture. But that’s where you’d be wrong, it would be a terrible thing for you to do.
Anti-poverty campaigns can sometimes work as a blunt tool and end up hurting the people they mean to help in these situations. We have to remember that working in a sweatshop is often a considerably better economic option for those workers than the next best thing, namely subsistence farming in many cases, or other low paid factory jobs. It’s worth noting that while £4.30 a day wouldn’t get you far in the UK, the MAS Holdings workers making Beyoncé’s ugly sports bras are actually on double Sri Lanka’s minimum wage.
Sweat shops are not a good option, but they are the least bad option currently available to many people. Washing our hands of the situation and just closing the sweatshops would make their workers worse off, potentially much worse off. If we want to help people, we should give them new options, not take away existing ones.
One MAS worker also found Ivy Park’s message of female empowerment deeply disingenuous, a fair point when you’re making £100 leggings by day and staying in a boarding house with terrifying unisex showers by night. She said: “When they talk about women and empowerment this is just for the foreigners. They want the foreigners to think everything is okay.” And frankly it’s not, we need to give these women more options, but the answer isn’t taking the best one they currently have away to make ourselves feel better.
There is also research to suggest that while sweatshops are far from providing the “empowerment through sport” Beyoncé’s clothing line promises, sweatshop work does actually help improve women’s lives in other arenas; delaying marriage, delaying young childbirth and extending schooling, particularly amongst teenage girls.
If we really want to help workers in developing countries lift themselves out of poverty we should buy more of what they produce, not less, and not just Fairtrade either. The boycotting of sweatshop-produced items or the campaigning for closure of factories can in fact have devastating effects and push the poor further into poverty.
So for now at least you can wear your Beyoncé branded swimsuit to the park with peace of mind that you’re not actually making it any worse, for workers anyway.