Horse meat, tax, human labour conditions – in that order?

The horsemeat scandal and corporate tax evasion have caused a huge public outcry, so why do stories of terrible working conditions go largely unnoticed?

Nicola Phillips
Nicola Phillips

Like others, in recent weeks I have been moved to reflect on how, in comparison with the depth of outrage about horsemeat’s infiltration of beef production in the UK, the issue of labour conditions in supply chains continues to elicit so little anxiety. The horsemeat issue received continual media coverage, caused the senior management of British supermarkets to issue public apologies and announce energetic enquiries, had David Cameron and other UK politicians out commenting on the situation – all as befits an issue widely described as the ‘crisis’ and ‘scandal’ of the moment.

But when was the last time you heard the word ‘crisis’ being used in response to a breaking story about labour conditions in supply chains? As just one example, the discovery some months ago of trafficked workers used in the UK by Noble Foods, a huge company supplying eggs to major supermarkets and retailers, generated a couple of excellent newspaper articles and comment on Twitter, but then receded as quickly as it had emerged. The chances of a person having consumed those eggs was at least as great as the chances of her having consumed a product containing horsemeat – probably greater – and yet the reactions could not have been more different.

The corporate tax scandals that have so preoccupied us over recent months are another case in point. Many of us fretted about how to spend an ‘Amazon-free Christmas’ after that company’s egregious avoidance of its UK tax obligations was exposed. Yet, when a report in The Financial Times in February revealed details of working conditions in Amazon’s UK warehouse in Staffordshire – described by one employee as ‘like being in a slave camp’ – and further distressing news of alleged mistreatment of workers in Germany came in the same week, there was hardly a flicker on the public or political radar.

By comparison with the furore caused by horsemeat and tax avoidance, the grotesquely unacceptable conditions in which many human beings work – including those associated with slavery, trafficking and child labour – remain limited in the degree of outrage or even interest they command. When we know that these conditions are by far the more widespread and scandalous problem in global supply chains, why should this be?

In an interesting article during the horsemeat ‘crisis’, Fraser Nelson pondered this question, wondering whether the answer lies in a kind of ‘moral long-sightedness’ – that it’s easy to get worked up about a problem thousands of miles away, but ‘sometimes, a problem close at hand is just too hideous or baffling to take in’. There’s something in this. There is undoubtedly a generalised lack of understanding about slavery and trafficking, and it can be hard to accept that such intensely dehumanising conditions remain part of how goods are produced and services provided in our economies.  But I don’t think we can put it down entirely to the limits of comprehension.

Let me offer for consideration three other possibilities. The first is the prevalence of a set of ideas about working conditions best encapsulated as ‘a bad job’s better than no job’. When the story about Amazon was published in the FT, for instance, all you had to do was read the comments thread to see how widespread this position is.  It has been a staple for many years in academic work and public commentary on labour standards in ‘developing countries’, notably in relation to sweatshops. When a fire in a factory in Bangladesh killed well over 100 workers late last year, this assumption surfaced yet again.

Let’s call it a ‘justification’, though, rather than an assumption. For it serves to normalise the ideas that firms offering work (of whatever quality) are providing a public good, that poor working conditions are acceptable for poor people, and, moreover, that a person is able to choose, or not, to work in those conditions – an objectionable logic that somehow sees as legitimate a ‘choice’ between work in appalling conditions or, say, destitution. Yet even the most severe exploitation – slavery, forced labour, child labour – still tends to command much less public attention than other supply-chain issues, and occasionally is even condoned along similar lines.  Something else must also be going on.

A second possibility challenges the idea of ‘moral long-sightedness’. Isn’t there often a much wider moral chasm between people and those they perceive as ‘distant others’? Given that most of what we hear about appalling labour conditions takes place in other countries, affecting distant strangers, a widespread moral and empathetic ‘disconnect’ is well documented and theorised in academic scholarship on global justice, cosmopolitanism and human rights. The reaction is often strikingly different when the reality comes close to home.

The more uncomfortable truth still is that the ‘distant strangers’ are not always far away. For immigrant workers are still seen in large sections of  society as ‘distant others’, and issues relating to their working conditions seen – and not infrequently condoned – through the lens of a particular politics of labour immigration which sanctions the denial of rights and protections.

A third possibility is that societies and individuals have become accustomed to a mode of consumption which privileges product quality and, above all, price. Much depends on the sector of the retail market in question, but, particularly where price sensitivity is paramount, we know that much less concern attaches to labour standards, fair trade or environmental standards.  In part, this is down to a lack of knowledge and information.

In other part, though, it is about the hierarchy of priorities that people adopt in making choices as consumers – hierarchies forged by the globalisation of production and the retail revolution of the late 20th century and maintained aggressively by large parts of big retail business.  Price over provenance and product standards over human labour conditions – this is surely where the nub of the problem lies, and what needs most urgently to be unravelled and rethought.