Sewing inequality: new Oxfam report reveals just 42 people have same wealth as world’s 3.7bn poorest people


Oxfam’s Reward Work, Not Wealth report reveals that last year saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, with 82% of global growth going to the wealthiest 1%.

And nothing to the poorest 50%.

The report, published in January 2018, reveals this imbalance is particularly acute in the garment industry, where production mostly takes place in least developed or developing countries. It takes just over four days for a top CEO to earn what a Bangladeshi woman working in his factory will earn in her whole lifetime.

For workers – predominantly women and children – dangerous working conditions and poverty wages are commonplace. Forida is just one 22-year-old young garment worker from Dhaka, Bangladesh, but the outline of her working life is a story that is told a thousand times over. She works at least 12-hour days, her wages are so low that, even with overtime, her income combined with that of her husband is still not enough to feed the whole family properly, or to send her children to school.

Yet, in 2016, annual share dividends from the parent company of fashion chain Zara to the world’s fourth-richest man, Amancio Ortega, were worth approximately €1.3bn. Stefan Persson, whose father founded H&M, is ranked 43 in the Forbes list of the richest people in the world, and received €658m in share dividends last year.

Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April 2013, killing 1,134 people and injuring 2,500. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history. (Flickr/Rijans)

Creating a more “human economy”

Oxfam’s report has fueled controversy, particularly because of an accompanying tweet which said an “extreme form” of capitalism was responsible for extreme poverty. Tory ex-charities minister Rob Wilson wrote in The Telegraph that the charity had “disappeared up its own morally righteous posterior”, and was too closely linked with “extreme left-wing Corbynistas”.

But the report does not suggest abandoning capitalism as a route to solve poverty. What it is calling for is a more “human economy”, that prioritises the interests of ordinary workers and small-scale producers.

In fact, parts of the report show how the market can be a force for good. “Trade and investment can spread opportunity, products, services and prosperity far and wide,” it says.

If business is done properly.

Oxfam is calling on governments to prioritise increased social equality, using taxation and spending to redistribute wealth.

It says businesses should take responsibility for the practices going on in their supply chains, so that they can ensure that workers are paid fairly and treated well.

Consumers can also play their part in nudging the market, by choosing to buy products from companies operating good practice and pressuring companies who act unethically.

It can make a real difference; take Nike as an example. Throughout the 1990s the sports brand was targeted by protests for its practices with suppliers abusing and exploiting workers. At first the company refused to take responsibility for actions further down the supply chain, but after its brand became synonymous with slave labour, it was forced to improve and (in terms of global brands, at least) Nike became widely regarded as a corporate sustainability leader.

However, with the pressure off, recent reports suggest Nike is going backwards rather than forwards. In March last year International Labor Rights Forum reported that Nike cut ties with the Worker Rights Consortium, blocking respected labour rights experts from assessing its supplier factories. Nike’s use of hazardous chemicals has also been criticised by Greenpeace. The protesters are back out in force.

Vildnis jumpsuit: ethical fashion offers stylish alternatives to the high street, with fairer working conditions and often using more sustainable materials.

Consumer power

Knowing which companies are ethical, and which aren’t, isn’t simple. That’s where BICBIM comes in – helping to make the ethical choice the easy choice. All the fashion on these pages is made from sustainable material, and is stitched, dyed, designed and packaged by people working in safe conditions, and paid a living wage. They are clothes to be proud of wearing, and not just because they look great.

It may only seem like a small step, but by choosing to buy from companies like those on these pages – and telling us about your favourite ethical brands – we can help make ethical companies more powerful and prompt others to follow suit.

Main image: By MOs810 via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Sewing inequality: new Oxfam report reveals just 42 people have same wealth as world’s 3.7bn poorest people

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