The dark side of Christmas: sweatshops

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The dark side of Christmas: sweatshops By Amoge Ukaegbu


Black Friday in the US. © Net Watch USA

It’s not Santa’s elves who work all day and night making Christmas presents. It’s Chinese workers who earn very little money, writes Amoge Ukaegbu.

Christmas advertising on TV. They make us want to buy things: electronics, clothes, toys.

Christmas means three things: advertisements and commercialisation, shopping and spending, and a lot more money for the Western economy. In 2015, British shops took more than £24 billion (about $30 billion) over Christmas. This is more than the entire GDP of countries like Nepal or Honduras. This mad spending is linked with advertising and the media and social media making us want to buy more.

The US has special sale days: ‘Black Friday’ and 'Cyber Monday’. These have now come to Europe too. The times before Christmas and between Christmas and New Year’s Day are the busiest spending times in the year.

Over last year’s sale weekend, British people spent £3.3 billion ($4.16 billion). Many people bought things online. On Cyber Monday, they spent so much money - £968 million - that the websites of big businesses (Argos, Tesco and John Lewis) crashed. It was so difficult for the delivery firms that they couldn’t accept all the orders from online sales.

Real world elves

We imagine happy elves making presents in Santa’s workshop. But this image stops us seeing the conditions of workers in the factories. About 80 per cent of the toys in the world are made in China. Nearly all popular children’s toys have a ‘made in China’ label. A long time before the Christmas songs start playing in the West, these ‘elves’ (who are really Chinese workers) have to work all day and night to make millions of products.

Chinese toy factories sell £2.8 billion ($3.53 billion) a year of toys to the UK. But the big brands (eg. Lego and Disney) pay factories only very small percentage of the shop price. They do not include the social and environmental costs in the price of these toys. This is exploitation.

But sweatshops are not only for toys. There are also sweatshops for electronics and clothing. Many people want Apple, Amazon and Samsung gadgets. But all these companies are guilty of not supporting workers’ rights (somewhere in their supply chain), like other famous brands eg. Nike and Topshop. People have criticised Samsung because they make workers work with toxic chemicals and because they have an agreement to have no unions in Asia; people criticise Apple for working conditions that have forced workers to kill themselves. ‘Conflict minerals’ (minerals like coltan that are financing war) from the Democratic Republic of Congo are in more than 50 per cent of all equipment with batteries.

Workers suffer very bad treatment. They work very long hours for very low pay, in unsafe conditions. They have to suffer verbal, and often physical or sexual abuse. This is against basic human rights.

Millions of factory workers across the world have a very hard, very boring life to make enough for the Christmas shopping period.

A call to action

Buying more at Christmas creates more sweatshop labour, but it is wrong to say the people who buy things are responsible for this. Many people who are buying these things do not have much money – maybe their pay has not increased for a long time – so they can only buy cheap goods. Products like the Fairphone are expensive, and there are no ‘Fair’ options for laptops or desktop computers.

Some people say that sweatshops give women who work in factories more power. Or that they can bring money to poor people. But in some places, working in sweatshops is like slavery. It is wrong to benefit if there is exploitation.

But if we only ‘buy local’, will not be able to help the workers in the Global South. Many workers have to work in sweatshops because they are no other ways to earn money.

One of the best ways to fight this is to get workers to join unions. Then they can fight for better pay and conditions. Some people say this will mean many factories will close, but this is probably not true.


Bangladesh is a good example. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 killed more than a thousand workers. After that, many clothing companies (eg. Adidas and Primark) from more than 20 countries signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Accord now inspects 1,592 factories.

Bangladesh still has the lowest minimum wage in the world, but this has increased a lot from $38 per month to $68, because of protests and workers complaining.

So Bangladesh’s factories are still open. Many more workers around the world are now risking losing their jobs or attacks by police to fight for better pay and conditions.

But sweatshop labour still exists. We need to show solidarity. It is unacceptable that a hundred years after 146 workers died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City (and US workers got basic rights and protections after this), we are still fighting for the same basic rights and protections in the Global South.

The laws that now make sweatshop labour illegal are not very effective and often ignored. There are not enough policies and laws to make sure workers get rights, so governments are not doing enough to support the UN Declaration of Human Rights: governments in the countries where the factories are and governments that buy the products. So both governments and businesses are responsible for this. Global responsibility has failed to protect the human rights of the world’s most vulnerable people.

It is difficult, but possible to end sweatshop labour. We need everyone to want to change, at all levels: national and international levels, workers, businesses, governments and people who buy.

If people support groups like Maquila Solidarity Network, the Worker Rights Consortium, Electronics Watch and SweatFree communities, they can support those who are fighting to make sure our Christmas presents were not made in sweatshops.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).