Sustainable Design Awards Toolkit
Section 1.4 - Manufacture Abroad
i) Cheaper labour
Companies often chose to move their manufacturing departments
abroad, partly because of the cheaper labour available, but other
reasons include being closer to suppliers and being closer to new
markets. This provides employment to the citizens of the host country,
but jobs are lost in the country that the company has moved from.
Britain alone has lost a large part of its manufacturing industry, with the
majority being lost to countries that offer cheaper labour. One textile
factory is closed every day in Britain6, and imports have risen by 40% in
the last five years. The textile industry used to be Britain's largest
employer, but now is the fourth largest manufacturing employer, employing
more than 340,000. The motor industry has also been badly affected, with
highly publicised closures across the country.
James Dyson, the inventor of the famous dual cyclone bagless vacuum
cleaners, has also decided to move his manufacturing base to the Far East.
He has been a long-standing supporter of British manufacture and this
decision has shocked employees and trade unionists.
ii) Environmental legislation
He cites the driving forces behind the move as lower labour and production
costs, and proximity to suppliers.
Workers in Malaysia, the proposed site for the new plant, will be paid
approximately £1.50 per hour, in contrast to the £4.10 per hour paid to
the British workers.7
Dyson intends to put the money saved by moving manufacture out of Britain,
approximated at 30%, back into the Research and Development department,
which he describes as the "heart and soul" of the business, and intends
to keep in Britain.8
As environmental laws demand increasingly high levels of performance,
companies are moving manufacture to countries without such strict laws, or to
countries who have not got the resources to enforce their environmental policies.
In the border regions between the USA and Mexico, there persists the illegal
disposal of hazardous waste, posing significant threat to human health and the
environment, and contaminating ground water supplies.
Surface and underground water is in short supply, and is poor quality. Urban
areas face increasing levels of pollution.
Maquiladoras - foreign owned manufacturing plants along the border regions of
Mexico - are alleged to contribute to the illegal dumping of toxic substances and
have no on-site water treatment facilities. This type of pollution is illegal in
both countries. Communities have been created around the maquiladoras due to the
availability of employment, but these communities add to the pollution due
to poor sanitation.
Mass-migration from southern Mexico to the border regions is caused by the
availability of jobs in the maquiladoras, but adds to the pollution, overcrowding
and to tensions along the border. Foreign owners of maquiladoras are being
encouraged to invest in the infrastructure of southern Mexico, to encourage people
to stay in the south.
There are many environmental projects involved in improving the area, but there
is little contribution to these projects from the private companies who are
willing to take advantage of the financial benefits of manufacture in the region.
Clean up costs for the entire border region are estimated to be twenty billion dollars.
"Moving manufacture to a site where the company can get away with polluting is
cheaper than changing manufacturing practices to meet environmental legislation."
Discuss the above statement, considering the real "cost" of polluting. What incentives
might discourage companies from polluting?
iii) Working conditions
Moving manufacture to third world countries provides jobs and incomes to
people who are grateful for the opportunity. However, employers know that there is a
great need for employment in these countries, enabling some employers to take advantage
of their employees. Human rights are compromised by the working conditions in many factories
and manufacturing plants, and employees often have to work in appalling conditions, but
because they rely on their income from the job, they are unlikely to complain or refuse to
work in the conditions. The infrastructure is also weaker, without access to unions or fair
As investors, these companies have enormous potential to save money, but also to help
improve the situation in their host country. If a little of their savings was put back
into the workers' lives, e.g. through health care, education or pensions, the company
would be investing in the future of their workers and this would help to break the cycle
of dependence, and improve relations between the company, the community and the consumer.
Unfortunately, the companies that operate in these conditions are unlikely to respond to
workers' complaints or demands, but they will react quickly if their sales are threatened.
Consumer groups have influenced companies such as Nike to improve the conditions in their
factories. Consumers have a great influence over a company's behaviour, by wielding a
strong weapon against exploitation - the weapon is buying power.
iv) Child labour
In families with low incomes, generally in developing countries, sending
a child to school is not only expensive in terms of fees and books, but also in terms
of loss of potential income. If that child can work instead of attending school,
he or she can bring an extra income to the family. Additionally, if the child has no
family to provide support, he or she is forced to work, in order to survive.
Some employers, both foreign and native, see this need for employment as an opportunity
to reduce manufacturing costs, and they employ the child on a low salary, often in poor
working conditions. Young children are forced into the working environment, potentially
hindering their natural growth - physical, educational and emotional.
A young child works in a physically demanding job which could impair his
According to Geeta Dharmarajan in her interview with One World Online in 1997,
child labour is highest in areas of high adult unemployment. She states that
"Parents could get employment if their children were not working - but
children are cheaper."
Paulo Evaristo Lins, the Cardinal of Sao Paulo, Brazil believes that
"Unemployment destroys societies, but child labour shames all society".
Consumer groups are putting pressure on the government to require labels stating
whether child labour has or has not been used in the manufacture of each product.
However, in communities where child labour has been banned, and factories have
stopped employing children, there has been an outcry by the children themselves.
The reason that the children work in bad conditions is that they need to work, and
preventing child labour results in preventing needy children to take action against
their poverty. Geeta Dharmarajan acknowledges poverty as the driving force behind
children going to work, but believes that
Imagine that you have no money to buy food, and you have to work for survival. A law
is passed by people whose children eat three times a day, that prevents you from
earning the money you need to eat at all. How do you feel?
So how are the wrongs of child labour confronted, without denying the children's own
needs and human rights? Some suggestions are shown below.
Child labour is self-defeating: if a child cannot study, then the cycle
of poverty is repeated - and she will never get out of the slum.
For more information, it is highly recommended to
visit http://www2.gol.com/users/bobkeim/child_labour/ which
has excellent articles and case studies, including those on the following children:
- Providing education in the work place would enable child workers to
educate themselves, which would help them to grow and give them more opportunities.
- Providing nourishing meals to employees, not just the standard plain rice
which is served in many factories, would ensure that the child eats well and stays
healthy, and allow them to use their earnings to better themselves or their family.
- Offering part time work to children who are able to attend school part time
would allow children to work and learn.
- Organising working children's clubs in the child's free time would create a
social atmosphere where the children can meet and get to know each other, and help
them to develop their emotional and social skills.
- Introduce "work experience" for the children's parents, so that adults can
be trained by the children. This would create employment amongst the adult population,
and may gradually reduce the society's reliance on child labour.
- Encouraging "unions" amongst the working children and advising them of how
to negotiate work improvements would give the group a stronger voice to confront
employers, and empower the children:10
Assane, 10, works as a shoe-shine boy in Senegal.
Kumar started work age 8 in Nepal. He is now 16.
Pablo, 14, works as a street seller in Colombia.
Sawai started work making clothes in Thailand age 13.
"I hope I can make a lot of money. I hope I can go back to my village and give all my relatives presents."
"It was like a prison, we were locked inside. We worked from 5 a.m. until midnight making carpets and we slept among the machines."
"Although I like my job and I have a lot of friends on the market, I don't choose to work. I work because I must, to help my mother and to pay for my food and so on."
"I was very unhappy about leaving home and I was afraid of going to the city, but I knew it was my only hope to continue my schooling."
6.According to the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades Union
7.source: www.bbc.co.uk - last visited 23-06-2020
8.Please note that no reference is drawn between Dyson's manufacture abroad
and indications elsewhere in this report of poor working conditions abroad
9.Image courtesy of www.oneworld.net/guides/ chld_labour/front.shtml - last
10.Images are courtesy of http://www2.gol.com/users/bobkeim/child_labour/
and New Internatioalist, July 1997 edition