07 November 2013 You are here:

At what cost, bargains?

Yesterday, my beloved wife completed yet another shopping expedition – a holiday near Christmas, combined with inclement weather is a permutation that has inevitable repercussions! I find it exasperating that she always manages to find amazing bargains. I had assumed she would be using that iPad to do research on deep theological matters, such as considering the three epistemological questions in relation to our knowledge of God, but her search engine has other words recorded in its history – and words having the base-word ‘shop’ feature prominently.

Despite what it sounds like, it should be noted that my wife is no shopaholic! She shops for ‘essentials’ – although while I accept that we need clothes and food, I am yet to be convinced that ‘Christmassy things’ are essential – and more often than not returns with nothing, because she didn’t find anything worth buying or worth the money being asked for it. She is careful – painfully careful – about spending money, and so prefers to go without something than expend too much money on it. And, perhaps, there lies the rub for today’s thoughts. So, read on, Macduff! (To unashamedly misquote unashamedly the misquoted Shakespearean quotation!)

She had spent a pittance on an outfit for a party she will be attending in the near future. Like her mother, she prides herself on finding ridiculously inexpensive outfits that look smashing – in contrast to my mom who liked costlier attire for special occasions! She’d also found a pair of jeans for me that were a giveaway. I was chuffed, of course!

This morning, with that pair of jeans casually draped over a chair, I read a CNN news report which challenged me –yet again – about complacent shopping habits. The story started with a letter – a copy of the opening paragraphs was published…

The letter was written by an inmate in a labour camp in China who was making Hallowe’en decorations for the American market and who sneaked the letter inside one of the decorations, hoping to announce to the world the plight of the inmates of that camp. The full story can be accessed here.

We frequently hear reports of labour camps, sweatshops and the like and, whereas there is outrage for a while, my own tendency to forget and move on is, I suppose, typical of the vast majority of us in the West. As long as these issues do not directly affect us, we can shelve them in fairly good conscience. And, frankly, there are so many causes, so much injustice and exploitation going on, that we can’t absorb it all. From the Bangladeshi garment-workers who gained news prominence recently, to today’s report from India of a maid being beaten to death, to exploitative practices in the food industry in Britain, there is a seemingly endless list of people being abused – not only for sexual exploitation but often for various forms of exploitative labour. Statistics from World Vision are extremely alarming:

Globally, 12.3 million people are trapped in forced labour 217.7 million children (between 5 and 17 years of age) are working in child labour Of these, 126 million are trapped in “the worst forms of child labour”, which include trafficking, armed conflict, debt bondage, sexual exploitation and hazardous work. In 2006, 18 per cent of state-identified trafficked victims in 52 countries were exploited for their labour.

(Read the full World Vision report here.)

It soon becomes too much to handle and so we switch off. However, I am not so sure that we can afford (pun intended!) to keep suppressing this inhumane – indeed, inhuman – state of affairs. Quite rightly, we should continue to demand that industry and the market be stringent in their partnerships and that government to be stronger in dealing with countries where such appalling practices persist under apparent official sanction. It seems that the greater the economic power of a nation – such as China – the more muted become protests about human rights abuses and the less likely bans and embargoes are issued. It seems strange to me that the same countries that quite rightly banned South Africa for human rights abuses allow similar practice to go unaddressed – at least in the public domain – in other countries!

I think for us, as individual consumers, it behoves us to be as diligent as we can. I was pleased to discover that – in fact – my wife has checked on the policies of the outlet from which she acquired yesterday’s bargains. She has also stopped buying at two other outlets because there are questions about their partnerships. She remains adamant that, should it be shown that bargains are bartered for people’s freedom and basic rights as opposed to the big corporate’s profit margins, she’d rather pay more or not at all.

That’s fair, but more, from a Christian perspective, it’s just!