G8 summit: all talk and no sea urchin

11 July 2008 - 1:50pm

Leaders of the G8 have now returned home from their annual summit, this year spent at the luxury Windsor Hotel Toya on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Gordon Brown made headlines with his call for British consumers to waste less food, sparking howls of protest as he then rejoined dignitaries for their next eight-course banquet. Other stories highlighted the astronomical cost of putting on the G8 summits, in particular the staggering £140 million spent by the Japanese hosts this year on security alone.

Yet beneath the headlines, there is a serious side to these summits. With an agenda remarkably similar to that of its first gathering at the French presidential palace of Rambouillet 33 years ago, this week's summit focused on soaring oil prices and the threat posed to world markets by long-term financial instability. Yet there was still talk of the 'soft agenda' of the global food crisis, climate change and Africa. When it comes to these vital issues of common international interest, can we seriously expect the G8 to come up with the goods?

Even when examined against the G8's own promises, the record is shockingly poor. Cast your mind back to the G8 summit of 2005, when Tony Blair welcomed the world's leaders to the Scottish golfing resort of Gleneagles against the backdrop of the Make Poverty History campaign. Massive public pressure that year wrung a series of pledges from G8 leaders on the campaign's three central demands of aid, debt and trade. So where are they now?

On aid, the world's richest countries are way short of the target they set themselves in 2005. According to official statistics, UK aid dropped a massive 29.1 per cent in 2007. While much of this fall was due to not being able to inflate the statistics by 'double counting' debt cancellations to Iraq and Nigeria, as the government had done in 2006, UK aid also fell in real terms last year. Readers with long memories may recall Labour's longstanding pledge that it would reach the UN aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income by the end of its first term of office. After a full 11 years in power, the figure now stands at just 0.36 per cent.

The G8 record on debt relief is not much better. Despite the pledges made at Gleneagles, at least another $400 billion in debt cancellation is needed if the world's poorest countries are to have the resources needed to fight their way out of poverty. Even now, for every dollar they receive in aid, poor countries have to hand back five dollars in debt repayment. And much of that is 'illegitimate debt' which was simply designed to benefit Western businesses or corrupt elites. Should the world's poor really have to repay loans that brought them no benefit and had nothing to do with them in the first place?

On trade, the third major demand of the Make Poverty History campaign, things have actually got worse. Aid and debt were relatively easy wins when set against the vested interests and corporate lobbying that dictate the G8's trade agenda. The World Trade Organisation has failed to deliver anything close to the 'development round' promised at its launch in Doha back in 2001, and is now on the verge of final collapse under the weight of rich country self-interest. Gordon Brown may have thrown his weight behind an eleventh hour deal, but the time has come to recognise that the G8's trade agenda has nothing to offer the poor.

Which brings us once again to the question which has dogged every G8 summit since their first gathering back in 1975: why should we look to this self-appointed coterie to act in the interests of anyone but their own? To be fair to it, the G8 has never sought any legitimacy beyond being a members-only gathering, even now refusing to admit emerging nations like India and China to the club. In this respect, the G8 remains an unapologetic statement of pure power, free from any considerations of democratic participation. Should we really be surprised if its record is characterised by self-interest?

And finally, just in case you think the feelings above are too cynical, we reproduce here the assessment given by Robert Shrimsley in the Financial Times of 10 July 2008:

The G8 broke up yesterday, having issued the following communiqué

"The Group of Eight industrialised nations - otherwise known as seven world leaders and Italy - today pledges to make major strides towards cutting carbon emissions which we think are a jolly serious problem. We commit to reducing our carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. We were going to go for 30 per cent by 2030 or 25 per cent by 2025 but we felt it was better to aim high - as well as long. 2025 really isn't that far away and this isn't the moment for precipitate action. We'd do more but China and India won't play ball. Honestly, we're gutted.

"The leaders agreed to do more to make it look as if we were doing more to meet the targets we set before - but aren't meeting - to do more to help the starving in Africa. The G8 also deplored the global economic crisis and wished it could do more but concluded it can't, so commissioned some reports and turned to Zimbabwe, where it wished it could do more.

"We further agreed to meet again, sometime soon, somewhere nice - perhaps with a bit more sun and a bit less sea urchin - to discuss this all some more. It's been great. Do send our regards to Bono.

"More detail of how little importance we actually attach to anything in this communiqué will be given out by press officers for each nation on the planes home."

Oil companies tighten grip on Iraq

3 July 2008 - 4:27pm

Attempts to pass an oil law which would hand over control of Iraq's oil to multinationals for a generation have so far failed. However, the current US administration still sees it as a crucial goal in Iraq before George W Bush leaves office. There have been two alarming developments which make opposition to the oil law all the more urgent.

The Iraqi federal government is about to sign oil development contracts with BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Total on established Iraqi oil fields. The sort of technical contracts being proposed are not problematic in themselves, but in the case of Iraq they are a stepping stone towards the sell-off of Iraq's oil.

On 30 June 2008 the Iraqi government invited international companies to bid for longer-term contracts on the same oil fields. Until now the Iraqi government was committed to keeping fields already in production in Iraqi hands. If these contracts are signed, foreign companies would gain control of about half of Iraq's known oil reserves.

Click here to find out more about these developments and to join the Hands Off Iraqi Oil campaign which War on Want has launched with other groups.

Iraqi government crackdown on trade unions

War on Want has been supporting the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU) since 2005 to improve labour laws and ensure Iraq's natural resources are kept in the hands of Iraqi people. The union represent as many as 26,000 workers throughout Iraq.

The IFOU, based in Basra, operates in an extremely difficult environment, where trade unions are still not recognised by law and freedom of association and expression continues to be curtailed.

Only recently, Iraq's oil minister decreed that eight prominent trade union activists from the IFOU, plus four senior managers from the Southern oil Company in Basra, be transferred from their workplaces in Basra to Baghdad and Nassiriyah. Occupation forces and private military security companies are active in these areas, which are thought to be far more dangerous and violent than Basra. The IFOU fears the transfers are a way of silencing trade unionists who are opposing the oil law and oil privatisation.

For the IFOU, incidents like these represent an attack on the trade unions' efforts to defend workers' rights. Hassan Juma'a, the IFOU President, said: "We condemn this action and believe it is a violation of human rights. We will try to prevent this kind of action against the Union by having a meeting with the Prime Minister in Iraq and those parliamentarians who support our efforts."

War on Want continues to support the IFOU's attempts to ensure that workers have a say in the future of their country's resources, and that their rights are fully recognised and protected.

War plc: The Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary

As the UK government maintains its deafening silence on the need for regulation of private military and security companies, War on Want features in a new book on these private armies. War plc: The Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary by Stephen Armstrong exposes, through first hand accounts, the violent role of British companies in the occupation of Iraq.

Watch the video below to hear author Stephen Armstrong discussing his new book with Ruth Tanner, Senior Campaigns Officer at War on Want.







UK retailers under increasing media spotlight

3 July 2008 - 11:21am

In June 2008, War on Want received extensive media coverage after we advised the BBC on issues around garment workers in the developing world. Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer, was interviewed for the Panorama programme Primark: On the Rack, which was watched by over four million viewers.

Our campaign (recently including a protest outside Primark) to improve working conditions and win a living wage for workers supplying clothing to high street chains and supermarkets, was widely covered in the mainstream newspapers, TV and radio.

Furthermore, War on Want, together with Labour Behind the Label, funded a speaking tour for Suhasini Singh (pictured below outside Tesco's AGM). Suhasini is a researcher with the India-based NGO Cividep, which has provided War on Want with research on labour rights issues and factory conditions in Bangalore.

Suhasini gave War on Want direct testimony from workers and information about the conditions faced by those making garments for massive UK companies like Tesco. She was able to attend the company?s AGM and speak directly to Tesco's CEO, Sir Terry Leahy, about the conditions and pay in the sweatshops that make clothes for Tesco.

As the biggest retailer in the country, and a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative, Tesco should be leading the way in ensuring that workers making its products are paid a living wage, have the right to join a trade union and don't work excessive hours or under poor conditions. Instead, research carried out by Suhasini for War on Want in Bangalore found that workers in factories supplying Tesco were paid half a living wage, finding it even more difficult to get by now with the increase in global food prices. She took time to answer some questions for us.

Q: What were the conditions and pay like in the factories that you investigated?

A: The working conditions of garment workers are precarious in Bangalore. They have to work for nine to ten hours with a break of half an hour for lunch, that's it! They are forced to complete targets of 100-120 pieces per hour, when under normal circumstances one can do just 60 pieces. Many get paid well under a living wage, yet they are expected to take care of a family of four or more! Overtime is not paid, workplace harassment and abuse are rampant and above all, workers cannot voice their opinion through unions.

Q: Do you think companies are doing enough to ensure that workers in their supply chains are paid properly and have good working conditions? What changes would you like to see made by the companies that buy these clothes?

A: Generally speaking, companies have just managed to improve the physical condition of the factory but nothing beyond that. Workers are paid the minimum wage, which is far below a living wage. Collective bargaining at the workplace is not allowed so there is no other way to increase the wages of workers from what they are getting now. British companies should ensure that suppliers pay living wages to the workers so that they have a decent living. They should allow unionisation in the factory. This will help workers to voice their opinions and demands on various issues. Moreover, freedom to form a union is enshrined in Indian Labour Law; they should respect it.

Q: You met Sir Terry Leahy after the Tesco AGM. What was his reaction to the things you told him about the garment industry in Bangalore?

A: I told him about the deplorable condition of the garment workers in Bangalore producing for Tesco and said that with Tesco's increased profits this year he can actually give a living wage to the workers there. He replied saying, " We will look into it. A lot of research has to be done to determine the living wage. We [Tesco] want to work with the best employers in India." I wonder if it is his genuine desire to put in some effort in this direction, or if this is just one of those fake statements!

War on Want is campaigning to make sure that workers supplying big UK supermarkets get a fair deal. Time and again we?ve uncovered poverty pay, unacceptable working conditions and a lack of trade union rights in the factories that provide clothes for the UK high street. The companies that make massive profits off the back of the clothing industry have a responsibility to ensure that their suppliers treat workers fairly and that cheap clothing doesn?t come at the expense of workers? rights.

Please join War on Want today and help us to campaign and support our partners working to improve the lives of people in sweatshops around the world. The more we can raise public awareness on this issue in the UK, the more pressure UK retailers will be under to improve the conditions of people producing their clothes.







Tesco 'sweatshop shame' fury

26 June 2008 - 3:40pm

Clothes workers paid 16p an hour

Workers making clothes at a factory in India for the top British retailer Tesco are toiling long hours for as little as 16p an hour - only half a living wage.

This warning is signalled today by the charity War on Want and the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, which will bring the Indian researcher who uncovered the scandal to protest at Tesco's annual meeting tomorrow (Friday 27 June 2008).

It follows BBC TV's Panorama on Monday (23 June) which showed some of India's poorest people, including children, working long, gruelling hours for poverty pay on Primark clothes in slum workshops and refugee camps.

According to the research, employees at a large Tesco supplier factory in Bangalore are struggling to survive on less than £1.50 a day for a 60-hour week, with a 20 per cent hike in rice prices making life even harder.

Employees in the factory earn on average £38 a month, and the lowest paid receive just £30, while the Bangalore Garment and Textile Workers' Union last year calculated a living wage as at least £52 a month. Employees complained that bosses forced them to work overtime or face the sack and they receive only half the extra hours recorded.

Workers say the high pressure to produce orders means they risk dismissal for failing to meet double their normal targets, requesting sick leave or arriving late on two consecutive days. Some employees, fearing the loss of their jobs if they miss targets, skip lunch and do not drink water in order to reduce the number of times they go to the toilet.

Haneefa, who lives with her parents and is also their carer, earns just £38 a month. She admits: "I don't buy anything for myself. I can't save anything from what I earn. It is difficult to survive on this money."

The factory does not recognise a trade union. And some workers fear managers are targeting them for potential firing for their individual union membership, which would flout Tesco's ethical code of conduct. One employee told colleagues about a forthcoming union meeting on a Sunday, the workers' only day off. Bosses then imposed compulsory overtime and threatened staff with severe punishment if they failed to work on that day.

At last year's Tesco AGM, War on Want submitted a shareholder resolution demanding Tesco guarantee the fair treatment for workers as promised under its ethical code of practice. Tesco opposed the resolution that sought to ensure decent pay and conditions for overseas workers. But an unprecedented one in five Tesco shareholders refused to support the retailer's opposition to the resolution.

The new research follows War on Want's earlier report Fashion Victims that revealed workers in Bangladesh paid as little as 5p an hour to produce clothes for Tesco.

Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: "Our new evidence again reveals how Tesco's cheap clothing comes at the shameful price of workers' poverty. Again and again, scandals exposing UK retailers exploiting garment workers underline that the public cannot trust stores to police themselves. It is high time the British government legislate to stop this abuse."

Martin Hearson, campaigns coordinator at Labour Behind the Label, said: "How many times do we need to hear stories like these before Tesco gets its act together and pays workers a living wage? Every little really does help garment workers living below the breadline, especially as food and rent costs shoot up."


  • The research, Tesco and Indian garment workers - lessons forgotten, can be downloaded below.
  • The researcher, Suhasini Singh, who works for the Indian labour rights organisation Cividep, is available for interview.
  • Tesco's annual meeting will take place at 11am tomorrow (Friday 27 June) at the National Motorcycle Museum, Coventry Road, Solihull B92 0EJ

CONTACTS Paul Collins, media officer, War on Want (+44) (0)20 7549 0584 or (+44) (0)7983 550728 Martin Hearson, campaigns coordinator, Labour Behind the Label (+44) (0)7727 235391

Tesco 'slave labour' row

26 June 2008 - 1:00am

The Evening Standard

'Sweatshops' protest hits Primark

23 June 2008 - 11:12am

War on Want targets flagship London store

Primark: On The Rack

20 June 2008 - 6:24pm

At 9pm on June 23, BBC1's Panorama will put Primark's claims that it can deliver cheap, fast fashion without breaking ethical guidelines to the test.



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